HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
By Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
243 pp. Other Press. $24.95.
Review by Richard A. Posner
The inspiration for “How Much Is Enough?” is — unsurprisingly, given the father’s preoccupation — an essay by Keynes. It is called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” and was published in 1930. Since it is by Keynes, it is ingenious and brilliantly written. It is also dated and unconvincing. It predicted that barring another world war or some comparable tragedy, a century hence per capita income would be four to eight times as much because of continued capital investment. So far, so good; despite another world war, G.D.P. per capita in the United States has increased almost sixfold since 1930 (and about the same in Britain), and we still have 18 years to go before the century is up. Keynes thought the increase in per capita production would lead to a sharp fall in the hours of work; by 2030 a person would have to work only 15 hours a week to maintain his standard of living. The “economic problem” would have been solved, and the challenge would be to fill up people’s leisure time with rewarding leisure activities. This part of Keynes’s paper is wide of the mark. People in wealthy countries like the United States and Britain are working fewer hours per week on average than in 1929, before the Great Depression reduced the amount of available work: roughly 40 rather than 50. But Keynes thought that by 2010 the average would be 20.
His essay is very English, because the traditional aspiration of the English upper class was not to work at all. Keynes, middle- rather than upper-class, worked hard all his life, but he was highly cultivated, a member of the Bloomsbury set, a balletomane, an admirer of the “good life” in a distinctively English sense unrelated to material comfort.
In recent years, England has become much more like the United States, but I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.
The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labor than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that. And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately. The implications would be social as well as individual. Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week. And imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.
Richard A. Posner is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.