How much is enough ?

I sometimes use this site to review books – not so much to deal with their merits or faults as much as to put down my own reflections on a topic. Writing like this helps to clarify one’s own mind. This is a blog I haven’t finalised, but I wanted to get it out and work on it as thoughts come to me.

Anyway I’ve recently finished reading a book I had planned to tackle some time ago (which is why a rearrangement of my bookshelves revealed I’d bought it twice) – “How Much Is Enough ?” by Robert and Edward Skidelsky.  Robert Skidelsky is the author of a three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, and this book, first published in 2012, follows on from an essay the great man wrote in 1930 – “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”.

Keynes asked a question that is so important that it amazes me that it has hardly been asked or addressed at all, except as a spin-off or environmental concerns.  In his essay, he looked at the pace of economic growth, and asked what would the standard of living be like in a hundred years’ time – which is to say, round about now.  He estimated that (by compound interest) advanced industrial countries would produce four times as much in goods and services per head as they did as he wrote.  They would, therefore, be four times as prosperous as they were in the 1920s, which led to the question that forms the book’s title – how much is enough ?  Do we need to, should we, keep growing ?

We know the environmental reasons to ask this question.  It is not just the old question posed by the Club Of Rome forty years ago, about the limits to growth as a result of exhausting our physical resources.  Hardly anyone worries today about running out of oil or metals.  If anything, protestors aim to stop more oil drills or quarries – look at current debates about North Sea drilling or coal mines in Cumbria.  It is climate change that is the worry today, the knowledge (I won’t dignify idiocy by calling it a theory or an idea) that human activity will add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and push the temperature of the earth to dangerous levels. Beside that, the oceans of plastic and rivers of sewage are lesser order problems.

But the environmental cost of growth wasn’t actually the driver behind Keynes’ thoughts.  He wanted to cut back the drudgery of work.  In his day, for most people, labour was an unpleasant thing to be avoided[1].  For an economist, labour had a disutility (as against wealth & products, which had utility): it was an unpleasant chore.  For most occupations, one hundred years ago, that was surely right.  Going down a pit, or into a textile mill, a steelworks or cutting the endless furrows of a ploughman – they were disagreeable and demanding.  There still many jobs like this – not as many, perhaps, as politicians pretend when they talk of ‘hard-working families’, but enough.  In economic theory, wages were the price of labour disutility – they were what employers had to offer to bribe people to supply effort.

I’m not sure that is still as true as it was, though.  In the days of coming artificial intelligence, the debate is also about sharing out work.  People miss work, and whilst for many that will be about the income work supplied, that isn’t the only thing.  There’s a reason why the first question people ask when they meet is usually “what do you do ?” (and they don’t mean baking sourdough bread or walking the dog): someone’s occupation helps tell you who they are, and for them it gives identity.  My experience of the Sheffield steel closures was that, whilst those jobs were hot and demanding, and dangerous, they also gave companionship and meaning to a life, purpose to activity.  The whisper of this idea cuts through our language sometimes. “The devil makes work for idle hands” we’re told, supporting Samuel Smiles’ belief that “it is idleness that is the curse of men – not labour. Idleness eats the heart out of men, as of nations, and consumes them as rust does iron”.  “There are few ways a man can be more innocently employed as in making money” Samuel Johnson tells us.  At the far end of this idea, we hear Noel Coward telling us that ‘work is more fun than fun’. Truer, of course, when sipping cocktails with Gertrude Lawrence at a dress rehearsal than a morning shift at Tesco, but you know what he means. Those Downing Street politicos who, we’re told, worked so hard in the Covid lockdown couldn’t tear themselves away to go home.

So, topic one: is work such a bad thing we must rein in production to free people from it ?  I suspect this will vary according to your work experience.  There is certainly no need for the madness we hear about in merchant banks, where young employees work till late at night at an extraordinary level of intensity. What, one asks, would happen if they didn’t ?  Not much bad, I think: I suspect the issue is competition. If they didn’t work at that intensity, some other venture capitalist or hedge fund will close the deal they want.  Ditto making ‘fulfilment centre’ employees run round like scared cats, with limits on toilet and break times.  There’s even an argument that we have replaced the automatised jobs with unnecessary time wasting occupations – “Bullshit Jobs” – that serve no real purpose at all.

But, topic two: could we afford to ?  Don’t we need a constantly expanding GNP in order to secure better living standards for the poor ?  The answer is a resounding no.  We have enough already to meet all needs: we have achieved the growth that Keynes foresaw.   Here’s a footnote from Michael J Sandel’s “The Tyranny Of Merit”:

In the United States most of the economic growth since 1980 has gone to the top 10 per cent, whose income has grown 121 per cent; almost none went to the bottom half of the population, whose average income in 2014 was about the same as it was in real terms in 1980. (Ch 3, note 31).

The fact that those who support our present system have done so well from growth in the last decade without the majority of people gaining anything at all – that suggests that the assertion that we need growth to help the poor is hypocrisy.  One can see the attractions to the rich of an argument that says “if we have growth, you can have a decent life without me having to contribute at all” – the idea of the same slice of a bigger pie.  But we’ve had that for decades, and it hasn’t helped.  At its worst, it’s devil take the hindmost, and if you’re poor it’s your own fault.

Galbraith wrote “The Affluent Society” in the 1950s, arguing that there was enough for all and what was needed was a rebalancing of our output, making our world cleaner, fairer and more attractive, particularly arguing for better public provision. It’s striking to remember that he compared US public provision with Europe, when in all the years since he wrote, the American market model has become more dominant. Hard to see why. National income per head has, I guess, doubled since then by the wonders of compound interest. Some of the activities of middle class people – decluttering their lives, choosing artisan goods rather than mass produced – suggests we’re not on the breadline.

This, remember, after weak economic performance for a decade. The fact that this – and the associated productivity glacier – has not excited as much public comment as imperial measures and floating immigrants suggests that people don’t actually know when the GNP is growing or not. They know, certainly, when they’re having a hard time, but is that due to the overall; level of output, or to social and political factors. Children don’t hunger or poor people shiver because we are a poor country; those are choices we have made.

Not that there is massive public pressure for growth. Of course people want a good local library, sure, an effective hospital, modern car or decent school. But they might already have these things – remember that GNP is not a calculation of our wealth, it only counts what we produce in a year. On the other hand, there is relentless pressure from the corporate sector seeking endless expansion. The role of advertising and marketing aims at little else (though some is, of course, competitive – as in the burger wars). Does any Chief Executive say what we’ve got as turnover is OK ? I’d like to ask if there is there a record of anyone successfully living that way or running a company. There is, or course, plenty of evidence of companies coming a cropper trying to endlessly expand – M&S in USA, others buying subsidiaries that turn out to be worth little. And such fruitless expansion is often funded on borrowing that later comes back to cripple the company. We can only eat so many pizzas, wear so many trousers. We must remember that many of the actions that have been taken to boost the economy – marketising our public services, selling sub-prime mortgages, outsourcing and offshoring – have contributed to economic crashes.

Oh, and one last thing.  Keynes was exercised by the miserable selfishness behind capitalism.  Keynes thought that the reason we needed to have profit incentives and cost cutting, an economy that was driven by selfishness and treated humans as mere assets, was because at the moment those actions were what was needed to increase income to a level that would assure everyone of a decent living standard.  You’ll remember Adam Smith telling us that the butcher and baker did not provide us with food out of their sense of humanity, but to make a profit.  For the moment, selfishness makes the economic wheels go round. That was why we had to act, in his words, as if fair was foul and foul was fair.  He himself speculated in shares, products and foreign currency, but because that was necessary to fund his life and the institutions and people he loved.  He personally found the ethic of capitalism distasteful.  If his predictions were right – that in his grandchildren’s lifetime there would be abundance that meant we could leave that shabbiness behind – and I believe that we do – then why not move to a way of being that does not constantly penny-pinch, that does not complain we have to close libraries, weaken pension provision and pollute the environment because we don’t have the money to do better ?

[1] The idea that work was something to be avoided, that it stopped us from doing important things like appreciating the arts or developing friendships, was not new.  William Morris had come at it from a socialist angle in 1890, in his “News From Nowhere”.   He also looked to a world where products were made by happy crafts people, and not by grimy mass production.  (He made his own fortune from frighteningly expensive craft goods)  To a degree we’ve got there already, with our sourdough bread and farmers’ markets, but it’s hard to see a world of hand-knitted computers or artisan central heating. I’d argue that a zero growth society needs more efficiency, not less.

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