Sunday, November 22, 2009

Keynes' Bad Grandchildren

At project syndicate, Keynes' biographer Robert Skidelsky revisits "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." While we have achieved economic growth even slightly better what Keynes hoped for, our attitudes towards work and wealth have not changed in the ways he predicted. In particular, the fact that we can now afford what would be a very high material standard of living in Keynes' day with much less work should have freed us to "live wisely, agreeably and well."

Skidelsky offers a very gloomy interpretation:
Moreover, Keynes did not really confront the problem of what most people would do when they no longer needed to work. He writes: “It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional economy.” But, since most of the rich – “those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties” have “failed disastrously” to live the “good life,” why should those who are currently poor do any better?

Here I think Keynes comes closest to answering the question of why his “enough” will not, in fact, be enough. The accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the “good life,” becomes an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living. Beyond a certain point – which most of the world is still far from having reached – the accumulation of wealth offers only substitute pleasures for the real losses to human relations that it exacts.

Hmmm... My favorite hypothesis on this remains Robert Frank's.

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