Cousins Like Us: Black Lives and John Maynard Keynes
By Taylor BeckSeptember 4, 2020
During the war between the states, they fought for the lost cause, and lost. In 1905, the family patriarch started a lumber company that thrived for 60 years. There’s a history book on the company with a genealogy of our family. Ever since I first looked at the book as a child, portraits have stayed in my mind: the brothers, five Confederate soldiers in their early 20s, looking very young, tired, lost, and scared. In another family book, there’s a photo of a slave named Sallie McCreary, the daughter of a rape.
The book that swept me away this summer, though, is not about race. Entitled The Price of Peace, by Zachary D. Carter, it’s a biography of a radical British economist, long dead. But backlit by the Black Lives Matter protests and coronavirus pandemic, John Maynard Keynes’s ideas on inequality feel urgent. Carter, a journalist, describes not just his ideas, but the full Keynes: the gay man in 1890s Cambridge who chronicled the many men he slept with in a secret code. The art lover who bought pieces by Picasso, Degas, Renoir, and others. The journalist and lover of literature, whose close friend and editor was Virginia Woolf. The intellect who engaged with Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The man of the world who advised FDR and Churchill, and who fell for a Russian ballerina he watched dance, night after night — his first female lover, and his partner until death. The writing that made Keynes famous embodies a similar duality: cold mathematics in the service of social good.
In 1999, Time Magazine named Keynes one of the most important people of the century, reporting that “his radical idea that governments should spend money that they don’t have may have saved capitalism.” Keynes’s economic optimism powered the New Deal, the Great Society, and the welfare states of Britain, Scandinavia, and much of Europe. He helped build Britain’s National Health Service, still the gold standard for universal health care after nearly 80 years. His “socialist” theories, suspicious to some, inspired the red-baiting conservative resurgence of the 1950s. His provocations shaped not just the left but both of the United States’s political parties.
I’d long wondered about Keynes. The Waves, a novel by Virginia Woolf, features a smart, troubled character, Neville, based on her friend, the economist. “I am trying to expose a secret told to nobody yet,” thinks Neville, a businessman who loves Catullus and Lucretius, and falls in love with a man. “I am asking you (as I stand with my back to you) to take my life in your hands and tell me whether I am doomed always to cause repulsion in those I love.” Neville, like Keynes, is a man of the world, a number’s man, with a romantic’s restless imagination. I’d been smitten, too, by the one quote I knew by Keynes. After buying Isaac Newton’s papers at auction in 1936, Keynes realized the father of calculus was not just a scientist but a wizard of old: an alchemist, a Biblical geologist who dated Earth by scripture. Newton was “not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes said. “He was the last of the magicians.” Keynes, too, should be viewed as the magician he was, in the world he invented, argues Carter: not just the first modern economist, but the last of the moral philosophers.
Fast forward to our era, and the price of inequity is easy to see. In American cities, police beat protesters old and young, black and white, on camera. “Police dismantling” has begun in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. Confederate monuments are toppling, especially in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. As YouTube overflows with evidence of police violence, and reparations are debated with renewed force, a Keynesian truth is clear: economic inequality ruins peace. Carter shows how Keynes’s economic weapons have played out in the long drama circling social justice; potent in the time of FDR and LBJ, these weapons have been badly blunted by the neoliberal agenda of the 1990s. Equality won’t come, the book suggests, without economic change. Wealth is the root of the gap. And it is wealth, a hereditary accident helpful to white people, harmful to black, that needs to change.
A year ago, I got an email from a stranger. “I’m jumping out on a skinny branch,” wrote a woman I’d never met, “to see if you would be interested in speaking with me.” She’d read something I’d written, and thought we might be related. She asked if I’d be up to share “any familial history” about “the Rileys white or black.”
At a café in Brooklyn a few days later, I found a brown-skinned woman in her early 30s with a warm smile and quick wit. Meridith Malloy stopped by on her way to a radio gig on free speech. She had a journalism degree, I learned. “Helping moms with finances” is one of her projects, along with a holistic wellness program, helping the jobless secure savings during COVID-19, and fundraising for school supplies. Growing up, when people asked Meridith where she was from, she’d say, “I'm just a black girl from the Bronx.” Now that her daughter is 11, she wants to be able to tell her about her family's story.
Riley’s Crossing was once plantation land in Alabama named for our mutual ancestor. By 1860, Thomas Mercer Riley owned hundreds of acres of Monroe County, and 39 slaves. A century before biracial marriage was legal, his son raised a family with a black woman. Born at Turnbull Plantation, next door to Riley’s Crossing, Sallie McCeary was parts African, Creek Indian, and white, from the Scotsman who owned and fathered her. To her neighbors, she was “negro.” Sallie bore the first of five Riley children at age 16, when their father, Captain Tom “Cappie” Riley, was 25. He’d just returned from fighting a war to preserve slavery. Commended for “conspicuous gallantry,” he was present when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and walked with a cane for the rest of his life. The Rileys would raise their family together in a shared home, attend separate churches, and send their children to Historic Black Colleges.
Cappie’s sister, Jenny Riley, is my ancestor. Meridith descends, we think, from one of Cappie and Sallie’s children who stayed in the South. One son, Gus, Jenny’s first cousin, went north.
Gus lived in the “Negro” dorms at Oberlin College. At Harvard Medical School, he passed for white. He graduated in 1907, becoming a urological surgeon there for 40 years. Three years before Harvard Medical School hired its first openly black faculty, Gus retired. He married a white woman, had a daughter, and returned south just twice, for his parents’ funerals. Augustus Riley was the first black student known to pass as white at HMS, according to the 2004 book Against All Odds: The Legacy of Students of African American Descent at Harvard Medical School before Affirmative Action 1850–1968. He was buried in the same cemetery as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Gus’s siblings, meanwhile, stayed south, and stayed black.
In 1962, the granddaughter of Thomas Mercer Riley Sr. wrote about her family’s slaves at Flat Creek Plantation. “They were cared for well and valued both as human beings and as property,” Elizabeth Autrey Riley insisted in the Daughters of the American Revolution publication, DAR Magazine. Her black cousins might beg to differ. In Alabama, their children still couldn't go to school with Miss Riley's.
Meridith and I are roughly the same age. She graduated from high school in Richmond, some miles from where I did the previous year. She lives in New York now, as I did when we met.
Her mother never knew her own father, she said, the one from Riley’s Crossing.
Social justice, Keynes believed, was about wealth. If the state limits the gap between those born privileged and those deprived, it can limit the class tension and hopelessness that leads to violence. Germany should not be crushed by reparations after World War I, he argued. The consequence would be rage — hopeless Germans, vulnerable to a leader like Hitler, and war. The United States has created similar hopelessness, as Langston Hughes wrote a century ago. “What happens to a dream deferred?” He was right, of course: it explodes.
When Keynes wrote polemics on what governments should do with money, he wrote with fury. His book The Economic Consequences of The Peace, published in 1919, snarled about social injustice and railed against German reparations. The book made Keynes, at age 36, a public intellectual. The profits from Economic Consequences helped him fund the art of his Bloomsbury friends, even as they mocked him for his financial job and his marriage, at age 42, to the much younger Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
Keynes’s writing channeled Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He called for “the euthanasia of the rentier class” — to eliminate the inheritors, which included himself and his Bloomsbury friends. He cast doubt on Adam Smith’s laissez-faire beliefs. Mining financial data from ancient Babylon, he discovered new perspectives. “The old currency has become an uncontrollable madness,” he once wrote his wife, as he stayed up late another night in a row, studying Babylonian financial records. He skipped concerts and social gatherings to “retire […] to Babylon.” Keynes concluded from his studies that, as Carter puts it, “economic history [is] a fundamentally political story.”
There is no such thing as an economy free of government, he argued. There are only well-managed and poorly managed economies. Capitalist dogma was wrong to trust free markets. Demand is volatile, like human desire, influenced by fear and irrational hope: monetary policy must stabilize these waves. If a country wants full employment and a stable economy, the government must incentivize the spending that the country needs to grow, by lowering interest rates. Keynes had a retort to conservative complaints about the costs of sustaining government welfare and public works: “In the long run, we are all dead.”
Meridith was a mother of one with another coming when her mother had brain surgery. In 2018, at age 31, she became her mother’s power of attorney. She started learning, belatedly, a lot about money. “When I had my daughter, nobody informed me that I needed to get life insurance,” Meridith recalled. “I was just like, ‘What do the white people do?’”
Meridith’s mother didn’t own a house, but had lots of consumer debt, and many credit cards. Her mother took good care of the family, Meridith said. “She was never broke. We never wanted for anything,” and Meridith excelled in school. But her mother, a single mom, was also busy. “My mom, she worked multiple jobs because, from my perspective, she liked to shop,” Meridith told me. “We weren’t poor. But she didn’t manage money well.” She’d take loans out when she already had money because she didn’t want to lose any. “What did she spend it on?” she said, “I don’t even know; going to the mall all the time. I’m not sure about white people, but I can tell you, y’all have houses that you own … before you start buying lots of stuff.”
The roots of this “hoarding,” Meridith believes, are in slavery. “We were owned and had no rights. Black Wall Street in Tulsa was infiltrated and burned down. If you have an environment where your money, your home, your life, in 2020, can be taken from you any time, and those responsible won’t be held to account, a hoarding mentality sets in.”
Black people account for more than $1 trillion of buying power each year in the United States. “We’re not all poor! It’s mismanaged money that’s our problem.” The gap, in part, Meridith argues, is in financial knowledge: how to save money, how to grow it. “The black and brown community does not have this knowledge,” she said. “This has to be learned. In white families, people are taught about finance,” inheriting wealth and knowledge. “You see cartoonists and dog walkers buying $600,000 homes because their parents set them up.” This wealth, she pointed out, is built over time, from savings, home ownership, and investment.
When I mentioned Keynes and government welfare, she was quick to add, “I don’t think it’s up to the government alone. Our government is capitalism. That’s how it is, like or not. How do we get the poor to become the rich? White people ain’t about to teach black people about finances.”
One hot July night later, we spoke about Black Lives Matter. Meridith pointed out how the wealth gap amplifies the cost of a police shooting in the black community. When a parent is shot, “you lose a body, but you also lose what that body was bringing in,” income. A sudden cost, like the loss of a loved one, highlights inequalities that are chronic. “You [white people] don’t have to do GoFundMe funerals,” she said. “You don’t have to do the things we have to do as a community, because these things are set in place for you.”
The South was ravaged by the Civil War, having bloodied its own soil in “the War of Northern Aggression.” Its wealthiest caste lost their human property, much of their land and possessions, and a great many children. The middle class shriveled while poor uneducated farmers proliferated. The South was not just defeated, but humiliated and impoverished. Like North Korea, it was a wrecked society, a crippled limb burdening its wealthy conqueror.
When Life Magazine ran a photo essay about the lumber company run by my family, in 1949, the headline said “The New South: Its Farms, Factories, and Folkways Show Exciting Changes.” A century after the Civil War, Life was celebrating the first faint signs of business in Alabama. The same photo-essay featured a section on “the Negro problem.” “Still Segregated, Negro Life Is Getting Better,” the headline reads. One photo shows a classroom of black teenagers in Montgomery. The caption says that their school was built for 600 students, but houses 800: separate, but worse. Another shows a pool for “Negro” residents of a Mississippi town. “Just as fine,” the caption claimed, but more crowded: whites had two pools, blacks just one, though they made up 49 percent of the town. Our government failed to treat poverty in the 1890s and the 1940s, and it is failing now. We should not be surprised that our country’s defining feature is still racial inequality.
History is not fueled by heroes and villains, Keynes knew. Good and evil are religion words: slogans used to round up communists, witches, and Jews. Evils, Keynes knew, are created by circumstances — by economic inequality. This is why we can believe in restorative justice for poor young people who drift into crime, deprived of a parent, education, and other advantages. With empathy, we can imagine, too, that rich white men in bygone times did harm, in part, as products of their world. Forgiveness may be impossible for sins like theirs, but we can appreciate at least that social harms — slavery, sexism, homophobia — are often systemic, not personal. And so, fortunately, may be solutions. If crime is often created by poverty, mental illness, deprivation, then it can be prevented. If cops murder black people, laws can disarm them: in most First World countries, few police carry guns. We can “defund the police,” or rather, transfer some police funding to caregivers: social workers in the United States’s poorest neighborhoods, and to health care and welfare. Governments, in a position to curb a growing gap in opportunity, can either try to do good, or abdicate responsibility.
In the Paris meetings leading to the Treaty of Versailles, Keynes insisted that punishing Germany with reparations would uselessly hurt ordinary Germans. It would weaken the currency, and strip them of dignity and morale, leaving them hungry and desperate. Inequality created at Versailles destabilized Germany. It left Germans vulnerable to a fascist strongman, who blamed the nation’s problems on minorities, stoking racist nationalism.
The South is the poorest region of the United States, with the worst schools and negligible investment in public infrastructure. It is no surprise that Alabama was the land of George Wallace (“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”), who barred black kids from school. And of infamous Ku Klux Klan killings. And of the Equal Justice Initiative museum today. No surprise, either, that the South is a hotbed of pro–Donald Trump sentiment. When Trump blames the Chinese for COVID-19, or “mobs” of black people for “rioting,” he’s trotting out old fascist, racist lies. But it isn’t so-called evil in conservatives that brought Trump to power. It is inequality, ignorance, and despair. And the hunt for someone to blame. This desperation is not inevitable, Keynes argued. It is created by governments like ours.
On the phone some months later, Meridith asked me, “What was your financial situation like as a kid?” I grew up in the suburbs, I said. I didn’t feel wealthy, but I knew we weren’t poor. We didn’t live in a mansion or drive fancy cars. But I never wanted for anything, and I got to see the world sooner than most. If I wanted to be “a cartoonist or a dog-walker,” as Meridith said, my folks would have supported me, and they never balked at my wanting to be a writer.
I told her about the family patriarch, who in 1927 built a white columned mansion among magnolias, and later a pool and tennis court. The books I loved to smell and read as a boy, in the home where my mother grew up, came from Oxford. My great-grandfather, a book collector and amateur scholar of Samuel Johnson, brought them from Europe as a young man. They smelled to me like learning, exploring, and conversation.
In the 1920s, four brothers went to Oxford, including a Rhodes Scholar who became a state politician. There they befriended painters and writers, then returned to join the family business. By the time I applied to college, our ancestors had gone to Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Oxford.
Meridith laughed here, with a tone like, “Of course you did.” She said, “When Michelle Obama went to Princeton from Chicago, it was a big deal.” Not for you, she might as well have added. She’s right, of course. It isn’t just that admissions departments tip the scales for legacy kids (though they may, of course). Rather, by the time you’ve been spoon-fed Faulkner and Freud in a house of old books collected by erudite kin, the distance you have to climb to the Ivory Tower isn’t so far.
Our suburb in Richmond, Virginia, was born from white flight, as Meridith knew. The private school where I went to high school was founded in 1915, right as Confederate statues were being erected. White Virginians segregated schools, restaurants, even marriages. In 1890, the newly whitened Virginia legislature voted to honor the South’s General Robert E. Lee. Neighborhoods like mine, meanwhile, were created to separate the races.
“It’s not an accident that black people don’t own their homes,” said Meridith. “When the suburbs were created, people were told, ‘You’ll lose your home if you rent to black people.’”
This is how differences between cousins like us get created and sustained.
We need Carter’s book because the writing Keynes left us is rarely accessible. Keynes’s masterwork influenced governments across the globe, but it is “very likely the worst-written book of its significance ever published in the English language,” Carter writes. Much like Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money seems more often cited than read. Yet the book became gospel at Cambridge, inspiring a movement. One Keynes acolyte joked that his crew “went about asking ‘Brother, are you saved?’” The meek will inherit the earth, they believed, not by violent revolution, but by redistributive taxes, public works, and welfare.
The Theory earned Keynes a place alongside Aristotle, Hobbes, and Marx. It is “a love letter to the power of ideas,” writes Carter. It is also a “frustrating book,” because it is “written in novel abstractions, argued in convoluted sentences and dense equations. […] [It] is a dangerous book because it demonstrates the necessity of power.” And it is a “liberating book because it reframed the central problem at the heart of modern economics as the alleviation of inequality.” Its genius, he adds, lies in a simple truth: “Prosperity is not hard-wired into human beings; it must be orchestrated and sustained by political leadership.” There is no such thing as “trickle-down” wealth: free-market capitalism creates inequality by default. This laissez-faire market is not the natural state of money — rather, it is an economic choice that societies should manage for both moral and conservative reasons: to protect stability.
Keynes’s ideals, so influential for FDR and the New Deal, grew from morality more than from math. The spirit of his idealism, if not his exact prescription, engages our times as well. Inequality breeds hate. What America needs, he’d say, is openness across difference; a rejection of nationalism and identity-based division; and a government prepared to combat the gaps in opportunity that divide us. The protests we’re seeing, Keynes might say, are the price of prejudice — the cost of letting a wealth gap fester. This cost can be avoided by funding opportunity.
The wealth gap is easy to see. The top wealthiest African Americans — Oprah, Michael Jordan, the four black CEOs in the Fortune 500 — have roughly one-fifth the wealth of their white peers. The stock market, meanwhile, is mostly for white people. Eighty percent of stocks are owned by the top 10 percent of wealthiest Americans. When it comes to government assistance, the bias continues: of the loans of $150,000 issued by the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, where the race or ethnicity of the business owners were disclosed, just two percent went to black-owned businesses and 83 percent to white. As these loans are expected to turn into grants, they represent what Greg Ugwi at Thinknum called “a transfer of wealth from the US Treasury” to white people.
The stock market is not the economy, as the pandemic has highlighted. Businesses, stores, and restaurants are closing and laying off employees, while stocks in Amazon, Google, and Apple continue to soar. The winners are the wealthy. Black families with one parent and no savings, living near poverty, are not growing their money on the roaring market. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, now worth $200 billion, founded his company on his parents’ life savings. Few black entrepreneurs have this luxury.
Keynes believed that such disparities are the government’s job to manage. Total employment is something a government must create. Say there is no work in a mining town, he imagined, half-jokingly, in his General Theory. The government could bury bottles filled with cash in the old mine and sell companies the right to prospect it. The recipe for wealth redistribution is simpler: tax the rich to help the poor. The government needs to invest in public works: in parks, science institutes, and health care, which create not just cultural and artistic good that “multiplies,” but also jobs; and it also needs to invest in creating federal incentives for companies to hire people in sectors where jobs have dried up. “The pendulum on inequality swings to revolution or tax policy,” as Nicholas Colas of DataTrek Research recently told Barron’s. “It’s a short menu.”
“White people have far more connections to the forces of change than we ever will,” Meridith told me when we caught up another time. “So we need allies. If you look at Congress, or the judicial branch, there’s not a lot of color. If I have an auntie or an uncle that looks like you, or someone on my side that looks like you, it helps. We’re [otherwise] all going to do business with people who look like us. We’re going to be pressured by people who look like us.”
The heroes of the New Deal were Keynesians. These young American economists brought the gospel from England after studying with Keynes’s group in Cambridge. The acolytes’ ideals were less like Adam Smith than Karl Marx: bent on social justice, not blind faith in competition. One of Keynes’s early books had been called The End of Laissez-Faire.
Their enemies, too, were created by Keynesianism. In the 1950s, American conservatives based their economic philosophy on Keynes’s contemporary, Friedrich Hayek. The Austrian aristocrat called himself not conservative but a “liberal,” in the spirit of Adam Smith. His book The Road to Serfdom became the Bible to conservative pundit William F. Buckley and economist Milton Friedman, but Hayek criticized Friedman. In the United States, Hayek’s free-market capitalism mutated into a merger with Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists, helping elect Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes. But “whether he liked it or not,” Carter writes, Hayek was “the intellectual godfather of Buckley’s counter-revolution.” FDR’s New Deal government was like Nazism, Hayek claimed, playing fast and loose with history, both forms of “socialism.” His argument, as Carter sums it up, is familiar: “government intervention in the economy would lead to butchery and ruin.”
Once upon a time, my father was conservative. An industrial engineer with a brain for numbers who grew up in Mississippi, he believed in capitalism, loved to read history books, and would often debate me as we paddled a canoe on the James River. Who was the most important Founding Father? I chose Jefferson because he was a great writer who penned the ideals that the United States is based on. Without these ideals, how could we have our Civil Rights movements? Without the promise of “inalienable rights,” how would we get gay marriage? (This was also before Jefferson was widely known as “the Monster of Monticello,” the hypocrite of freedom fighters.) My father always chose John Adams. Without Adams, the architect of our government’s checks and balances, the revolutionary ideals of Jefferson would flame out, like the bloody French and Russian revolutions. My father’s instinct for political pragmatism came to mind more than once as I read about Keynes: his vision of social equality reliant not on passionate, tempestuous ideals alone, but on careful design.
In 1946, the Times obituary dubbed Keynes “the greatest economist since Adam Smith.” But Carter sees the comparison as more profound: “Keynes was to Smith as Copernicus was to Ptolemy — a thinker who replaced one paradigm with another.”
How often do you read a biography in which the hero dies two-thirds of the way through? After the chapter “Martyr to the Good Life,” Carter’s book soars on for 200 pages, showing us the volcanic afterlife of Keynes’s ideas — tectonic forces that shaped American politics. The next chapter, “The Aristocracy Strikes Back,” describes how Keynesians were tamped down in the McCarthy era, only to triumph again in the 1960s. After a smear campaign funded by a Holocaust denier, the first Keynesian textbooks were banned as “communist.”
What’s more, the hero of this book is human, rendered fallible with particularity. What strikes the reader is not Keynes’s “goodness” or “niceness,” but his charismatic power. “Few who encountered him in his element came away from the experience unchanged,” Carter writes. In his 60s, Keynes showed “wild enthusiasm” (his words) for the world’s most radical social welfare program, Britain’s National Insurance. He helped design it, breathing his spirit into the model welfare state. But he was “as vain, petty, shortsighted, and impolitic as he was generous, kindhearted, and persuasive.” Born into privilege, Keynes became a “traitor to his class,” as his ally Franklin Roosevelt was called by his enemies. His program set the mold: the National Health Service, a pension plan for the elderly, widows, and the disabled, and a weekly allowance to families with more than one child. In his last days, an old man in a suit with a white mustache, Keynes poured energy into public arts projects for the poor. The queer, elderly, but ever young Keynes gushed with punk-rock spirit, “Let every part of Merry England be merry in its own way. Death to Hollywood.”
The last time I spoke to Meridith, I was in Alabama, she in New York. Her young daughter was calling for food as we talked. “What do you need?” she asked the baby, adding to me, “Don’t stop, I’m listening.” In the courtyard where I sat, a fan spun slowly in molasses air.
Change in Alabama, like grocery lines here, is spectacularly slow. Seventy years after that Life article on the New South, my mother is 66. But her home in Montgomery, Alabama, is not the place she grew up — not quite, not everywhere. In 1954, the year my mother was born, the Brown decision forced schools to desegregate. Her local public high school did not admit black students until she was 16. Now, though, my parents’ new community is diverse by design; more Brooklyn than Southern suburb. Created by an English developer of Indian descent and his liberal Alabamian wife, the place is downright Keynseian. Housing is intentionally mixed in cost, ethnicity, age, and orientation. Million-dollar homes sit beside affordable rentals, ivy climbing stonewalls. No large yards or mailboxes: all stoops lead to public sidewalks. The community is walkable, like an English village — barbershop, town square, restaurants; a pool on a lake beneath big Alabama skies.
Riley’s Crossing is an hour’s drive from here. In one fenced cemetery, Captain Tom Riley’s stone boasts military honors and a Confederate flag. His white parents and siblings are fenced in with him, around an obelisk marked Riley. In a shabbier plot nearby lies Sallie, the mother of Tom’s children. Near her are their children and her McCreary parents, born slaves. On my walk past oaks dripping Spanish moss later, I remember Keynes. “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas,” he wrote, “as in escaping from old ones.”
Taylor Beck is a teacher and writer based in Westport, Connecticut. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and other publications.
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