29 03 2009

“I wish I would have drunk more champagne”
last words of JM Keynes

Nelson Bolles, former priest and author of what colour is your parachute, once said that while he has been with many people at the moment of their death he has yet to hear one person say, “I wish I would have done more work.” Keynes’ parting words reflect a similar sentiment – in the final analysis  quality of life is far more important than facts figures and how much money one has accumulated – though even on his deathbed Keynes manages to say it with his usual dry wit.

If one reads his essay Economic possibilities for our Grandchildren, it is very clear that this was not just some last minute death-bed revelation on Keynes’ part, but that he was well aware of this philosophy in the prime of his life.

Many’s the time during research and readings in the field of alternative economics that I have come across references to this essay. “Remarkable”, I’ve always thought, “here is one of the best known and influential mainsteam economists of all time putting ideas that we in the field of  “new economics” take for granted – things that would make Your average mainstream economist (if there is such a thing) blanche with horror.

Take this often quoted extract for example;

The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

The essay, as its title suggests looks at where economics will be 100 years into the future. As it was written in 1930 we are looking somewhere around the year 2030.

For a person as deeply involved in their vocation as Keynes was in economics, looking that far into the future can be a liberating experience. It allows them to dispense with the day to day cares of their discipline and take a broader viewpoint and, like Keynes has in this essay come to some remarkable conclusions.
The basic gist of the work is that due to the massive accumulation of capital and the rapid advancement of technology, somewhere in the not too distant future the economic problem will be finally solved.

…the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race.

Why, you may ask, is this so startling? It is startling because-if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past-we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race-not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.

Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts-for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.

With the economic problem out of the way, Keynes says that humanity will come face to face with its major challenge.

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

Keynes discusses this post economic problem in some detail. Most people he says, cherish the idea of dispensing with work and taking up lives of leisure. But Keynes believes that if it this actually did happen, they would find the reality is not as they expected. People must have something to occupy themselves with – to direct their energies towards. At the moment, he says, work fulfils this function. But when the economic problem is no more … it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

One way of solving this problem is to share around the ever reducing amount of work. Keynes suggests  a 15 hour working week – three hours work a day being more than enough to satisfy …the old Adam in most of us!

Keynes feels that the process towards this economic utopia would be a gradual one. That … there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed but he warns that until this time arrives we must put up with our economic system and its corrupt practices of avarice, usury and the love of money, for only they, he says can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

This essay was written in 1930 it is now almost eighty years later – approaching the end of his 100 year time frame – and as far as grandchildren go, if Keynes has any they would have been born by now. So how does his vision stack up. Are we well on the path to economic abundance for all, or are there circumstances that he could not have foretold, and do we put his essay into the same category as some of those ‘visionary’ Victorian inventions such as the mechanical hat tipper.

I believe he had a realistic vision as since this time there has been an accelerating development of technology and labour saving machines. But I think that he underestimated how strongly the economic system that he helped construct would bind us to outmoded concepts of economic scarcity thus preventing us from living this vision.

What is perhaps most valuable in this essay is that Keynes makes the distinction between two different types of work. There is work that is done to allow for our physical survival and there is work that is done simply for the sake of having a fulfilling life. He makes the very important point that economics really only need concern itself with the first type ( work for survival). So as technology advances, work for survival becomes less and less important and thus economics becomes less and less important. Then fulfilment in life rather than accumulation of money takes its rightful place as the bottom line.




One response

30 03 2009

This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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