Friday, September 28, 2012

John Maynard Keynes and "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren"

Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky urges us to take a new look at one of Keynes' most famous essays, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930).

In Return to capitalism 'red in tooth and claw' spells economic madness Guardian 06/21/2012, he uses Keynes' critical observation in that essay to point to how existing economic arrangements radically restrict the possibilities of our current economic capabilities:

Keynes reckoned that we would hear much more about [technological] unemployment in the future. But its emergence, he thought, was a cause for hope, rather than despair. For it showed that the developed world, at least, was on track to solving the "economic problem" – the problem of scarcity that kept mankind tethered to a burdensome life of toil.

Machines were rapidly replacing human labour, holding out the prospect of vastly increased production at a fraction of the existing human effort. In fact, Keynes thought that by about now (the early 21st century) most people would have to work only 15 hours a week to produce all that they needed for subsistence and comfort.

Developed countries are now about as rich as Keynes thought they would be, but most of us work much longer than 15 hours a week, although we do take longer holidays, and work has become less physically demanding, so we also live longer. But, in broad terms, the prophecy of vastly increased leisure for all has not been fulfilled. Automation has been proceeding apace, but most of us who work still put in an average of 40 hours a week. In fact, working hours have not fallen since the early 1980s.
These are real possibilities in the economy that aren't even on the horizon's of thought for our political and media elites. If the public can change the dominant way of thinking about economic policy away from austerity policies and toward stimulating the economy, more constructive possibilities like this can get back on the radar screen.

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