I’m not old enough to have lived through the McCarthy era, but memories of it were strong enough that it left an impression on my generation. Moyers’ gentlemanly manner leads him to understate how rabid and extreme the red-baiting of that period was. If you were tarred with being a Communist sympathizer, whether it was accurate or not, it was a career-ender. This propensity existed before McCarthy stoked it to a fever pitch, and it had all sorts of unfortunate side effects. Recall one seemingly minor casualty that had far-reaching consequences: how a textbook that gave an accurate rendering of Keynes was depicted as communistic, opening the way for neoclassical economics to become ascendant in the US. From ECONNED:
But there was a second, powerful reason to change Keynes for American consumption. A Canadian student of Keynes, Lorie Tarshis, published an economics textbook in 1947, The Elements of Economics, which included his interpretation of Keynes. It also suggested that markets required government support to attain full employment. It was engaging and well written, and sold well initially, but fell off quickly, the victim of an organized campaign by conservative groups to have the textbook removed. The book, and by implication Keynes, was inaccurately charged with calling for government ownership of enterprise. Any taint of Communist leanings would damage the career of a budding academic.
So aside from his refusal to accept some fundamental elements of Keynes’s construct, Samuelson had another reason to distance himself from the General Theory. Samuelson said he was well aware of the “virulence of the attack on Tarshis” and penned his text “carefully and lawyer like” to deflect similar attacks. He also took care to present his opus as “neoclassical synthesis Keynesianism.” The fact that Samuelson presented Keynes primarily through equations also made him less subject to political attack.
But Samuelson and his fellow neoclassical synthesis Keynesians, like Nobel laureates Robert Solow and James Tobin, told a story about the operation of a modern economy that was fundamentally at odds with Keynes’s precepts. Underneath the hood, Keynesianism was merely a branch of neoclassical thinking: while the economy could in theory work fine if left to its own devices, all sort of pesky real-world obstacles got in the way, like time lags and the ability of organizations to influence economic activity. Because pricing mechanisms didn’t always work correctly, an economy could fail to achieve full employment. That meant having the government stimulate the economy was a valid remedy.
Keynes, by contrast, saw the economy as fundamentally at risk of instability not due to factors that undermined how prices allocated resources and guided behavior, but due to how investors behaved: they could simply change their minds about how they felt about taking risk. If they became cautious on a large scale, the economy would suffer, and if the change was dramatic enough, it would go into a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
It is hard to depict how virulent the red-baiting period of the early to mid 1950s was*. It wasn’t merely State Department and members of the armed forces that came under scrutiny. There was a purge in Hollywood, with Elia Kazan standing up before McCathy saying he had been a member of the Communist Party and naming eight others he claimed had also been members; other member of the industry denounced colleagues in private to the authorities. Those accused were blacklisted for decades. Arthur Miller’s Tony-winning The Crucible was an allegorical protest against the escalating denouncements; not surprisingly, he was eventually called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But having said that, it’s important to recognize that, like in the 1950s, we live in an era of demagoguery. West is a blatant enough example to wake us up and remind us of the ugly paths it opens up.
*My college roommates included someone who wound up at Davis Polk; a Playboy model (1976 Ivy League issue), a later award winning poet, and two Communists. One of the Communists was very proud of the fact that her grandmother was the first person to take the Fifth Amendment all the way through her interrogation by McCarthy. But the grandmother became a Maoist and the rest of the family was pro-USSR, so you didn’t discuss Russia at family gatherings.