How much is enough? Leisure vs. more stuff

The great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted back in 1930 that someday it would be possible to produce enough for everybody and that, when that happened, we could all retire from the rat race and enjoy life.  His best guess was that we’d reach this point when economic output was eight times as great as it was then.

Since then, economic output has increased fivefold in the Western world, at least by some measures, but we’re still working almost as hard as we did then.  Or rather, just as in 1930, some of us are working hard and others are unemployed.  Keynes’s argument has been revived by two Britishers named Robert and Edward Skidelsky in a much-discussed new book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (which I haven’t read) and summarized in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here’s what they say:

If scarcity is always with us, then efficiency, the optimal use of scarce resources, and economics, the science that teaches us efficiency, will always be necessary.  Yet in any common-sensical view of the matter, scarcity waxes and wanes.  We know that famines are periods of extreme scarcity, and that good harvests produce relative plenty.  Thomas Malthus understood that when population grows faster than food supplies, scarcity grows; and in the reverse case, it declines.  Moreover, scarcity, as most people understand it, has diminished greatly in most societies over the last 200 years.  People in rich and even medium-rich countries no longer starve to death.  All this implies that the social importance of efficiency has declined, and with it the utility of economics.

The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants.  And this is how we do normally think of it.  The man with three houses is not thought to be in dire straits, however urgent his desire for a fourth.  “He has enough,” we say, meaning “enough to meet his needs.”  Flagrant manifestations of insatiability—such as an uncontrollable desire to collect cats or dollhouses—are widely viewed as pathological, not normal.  We are all, in principle, capable of limiting our wants to our needs; the problem is that a competitive, monetized economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more.  The “scarcity” discerned by economists is increasingly an artifact of this pressure.  Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.

The material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach.  Under such circumstances, the aim of policy and other forms of collective action should be to secure an economic organization that places the good things of life—health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on—within reach of all.  Economic growth should be accepted as a residual, not something to be aimed at.

via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I’m highly sympathetic to their point of view.  I love the leisure I enjoy in retirement, and I feel smug about being happy without needing the latest model of this or the most advanced version of that, a big-screen TV, a hand-held computer, an automatic dishwasher, all the gadgets that some of my acquaintances seem unable to do without.

But who am I kidding?  What I own is wealth beyond the dreams of avarice not only compared to people who live in poor countries or poor people in the United States, but compared to the average person in Keynes’ time.  When I was a boy in the 1940s, I was happy to ride the trolley-car, to shovel coal into a furnace and to talk on a party-line telephone.  But I would be miserable now if I had to do without a private automobile, a thermostat-controlled gas furnace and access to the Internet and e-mail.  And even the average American in the 1940s was rich by world standards.  The world is full of peasant villagers who are happy just having sufficient food, clothing and shelter, and from a universal perspective they are probably living more worthy lives than mine, but I could not be happy living as they do.

If you take my material possessions as the benchmark for what everybody in the world ought to have, this is not going to be possible without many people working very hard.  In fact, it may not be possible at all.  As the nonrenewable resources are used up, and as energy becomes more expensive, we may face a hardscrabble future in which people have to work very hard (by my standards) to be able to get by at all.

I read two unfavorable reviews of How Much Is Enough?  One reviewer argued that if we give up the struggle for money and material possessions, we will come face-to-face with the basic meaningless of life, and die of boredom.  The other argued that the Skidelskys’ program involves an unacceptable amount of social engineering.

I don’t think that too much leisure will be a problem.  None of my fellow retirees whom I know is bored or finds life meaningless.  They are all involved with their families, with volunteer work and with varied other interests, although not necessarily highbrow culture as the Skidelskys urge.  To the extent that this is a problem, it is a flaw in our societal values, which can be changed.  To the extent that it is a problem, it is a sad commentary on our values.  There is something wrong with a society in which people are incapable of simple happiness.

Some people who agree with the Skidelskys’ goals might not like their specific proposals—a guaranteed minimum income, advertising no longer tax deductible as a business expense, a progressive tax on consumption.  Yes, this is social engineering.  But the economic system as it exists today is not value-neutral.  It is tilted toward making people want more and against being satisfied with what you have.  I think their goal is a good one.  Reasonable people can differ on what means are acceptable to reach that goal.

My idea of the ideal society would be one in which people worked as much as they wanted.  People satisfied with a subsistence wage could work four hours a day; people who wanted luxuries could work eight hours a day; and people who were eaten up with ambition or who loved what they were doing could work 12 hours a day.  Right now there is a mismatch between what people want and what they have.  Surveys indicate that there are many Americans working part-time who would like to work full-time.  But may others would accept lower wages in return for fewer hours if that were offered.

Click on In Praise of Leisure for the full article by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Click on Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren for John Maynard Keynes’ classic 1930 essay.

Click on The Scourge of Overemployment for an article by sociologist Peter Frase, who makes the case that many people work longer hours than they need to or want to.

Click on How Much Is Enough? for Alasdair Palmer arguing in The Telegraph that the quest for money and possessions is necessary to save us from boredome.

Click on Self-Appointed Messiahs of the Nanny State for a reviewer who criticizes the means proposed by the Skidelskys to achieve a leisured society.

Click on Too much faith in markets denies us the good life for an excerpt from How Much Is Enough?

Click on We need the good life, not pre-washed salad leaves for an article by Edward Skidelsky in The Guardian.

Click on How Much Is Enough? for a 2009 article by Robert Skidelsky.

Click on Techno Unemployment for an argument that work needs to be more evenly divided among those seeking work by John Pennington on his Class War in America blog.

The RSA video at the top of the post was added August 5, 2012.

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One Response to “How much is enough? Leisure vs. more stuff”

  1. Recommended sunday’s watch: RSA’s How much is enough « Serve4Impact Says:

    […] How much is enough? Leisure vs. more stuff […]

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