The golden age

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The golden age

Leisure society: tourists at the Tahiti Motel Swimming Pool in Wildwood, New Jersey, 1960s. Photo by Aladdin Color, Inc./Corbis

The 15-hour working week predicted by Keynes may soon be within our grasp – but are we ready for freedom from toil?

John Quiggin is professor of economics at the University of Queensland. His latest book, Zombie Economics, is published by Princeton University Press.

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I first became an economist in the early 1970s, at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility and when utopian ideas were everywhere, exemplified by the Situationist slogan of 1968: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.’ Preferring to think in terms of the possible I was much influenced by an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist whose ideas still dominated economic policymaking at the time.

Like the rest of Keynes’s work, the essay ceased to be discussed very much during the decades of free-market liberalism that led up to the global financial crisis of 2007 and the ensuing depression, through which most of the developed world is still struggling. And, also like the rest of Keynes's work, this essay has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, promoted most notably by the Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward.

The Skidelskys have revived Keynes’s case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness. As they point out, their argument draws on a tradition that goes back to the ancients. But Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.

Writing at a time of deep economic depression, Keynes argued that technological progress offered the path to a bright future. In the long run, he said, humanity could solve the economic problem of scarcity and do away with the need to work in order to live. That in turn implied that we would be free to discard ‘all kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital’.

Keynes was drawing on a long tradition but offering a new twist. The idea of a utopian golden age in which abundance replaces scarcity and the world is no longer ruled by money has always been with us. What was new in Keynes was the idea that technological progress might make utopia a reality rather than merely a vision.

Traditionally, the golden age was located in the past. In the Christian world, it was the Garden of Eden before the Fall, when Adam was cursed to earn his bread with the sweat of his brow, and Eve to bring forth her children in sorrow. The absence of any discussion of the feasibility of an actual golden age was unsurprising. As Keynes observed in his essay, ‘From the earliest times of which we have record — back, say, to 2,000 years before Christ — down to the beginning of the 18th century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilised centres of the earth'. The vast majority of people lived lives of hard labour on the edge of subsistence, and had always done so. No feasible political change seemed likely to alter this reality.

It was only with the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment that preceded it, that the idea of a future golden age, realised as a result of human action, began to seem possible. By the end of the 18th century incomes had risen to the point where radical thinkers such as William Godwin could propose that, with a just distribution of wealth, everyone could live well.

The novel idea of progress — that the natural tendency of human affairs was to get better rather than worse — became part of ‘common sense’

Such dangerous speculation led to the first and still the most notable defence of the inevitability of scarcity, Malthus’s ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’, written specifically to refute Godwin. Malthus argued that, even if a technological innovation or redistribution of wealth could improve the living standards of the masses, the result would simply be to allow more children to survive. Inevitably, the exponential growth of population would outstrip linear growth in the means of subsistence. In a short time, the poor would be poor once again.

In the initial presentation of his argument, Malthus admitted only two checks on population — misery and vice. Misery meant poverty and hunger. Vice meant contraception, to which Malthus, unlike his neo-Malthusian successors, was resolutely opposed. Although he later admitted the third option of ‘moral restraint’ (that is, sexual abstinence), he was comfortably assured that this would never be sufficient to undermine his argument. Thus he concluded that the maintenance of a small upper class (clergymen, for example), with leisure to preserve, extend and transmit culture, was the best that humanity could hope for.

Linear growth? Fruit processing in Hawaii, 1960s. Factories drove up both working hours and living standards. Photo by Bates Littlehales/National Geographic/Getty

The conditions of the early 19th century seemed to support Malthus’s case. The Industrial Revolution had produced an intensification of work that was almost unparalleled in human history. Driven off the land by enclosure acts and population growth, former peasants and agricultural labourers became the first industrial proletariat. The factories in which they worked rapidly drove old traders and cottage industries like that of the handloom weavers into destitution and then into oblivion.

Unconstrained by seasons or by the length of the day, working hours reached an all-time peak, with the number of hours worked estimated at over 3,200 per year — a working week of more than 60 hours, with no holidays or time off. There were small increases in material consumption, but not nearly enough to offset the growth in the duration and intensity of work.

Most economists of Malthus’s time agreed with him. All the standard models ended in a steady state, with the majority of the population at subsistence. The only important exception was Karl Marx, for whom the process of immiseration ended, not with a subsistence-level steady state, but with crisis and revolution.

By the late 19th century, things had changed. On the one hand, Malthus’s predictions were being falsified in practice. A growing middle class was enjoying improved living standards as a result of technological progress. And, whether through moral restraint or contraception, they were having smaller families. The relatively novel idea of progress — that the natural tendency of human affairs was to get better rather than worse — rapidly became part of ‘common sense’.

The working class had more compelling reasons to hope for better things. Over decades of struggle, workers clawed back the ground they had lost and then some. The Factory Acts outlawed child labour in Britain, and by 1870 all children in England and Wales were entitled to at least an elementary education. The hours of work were limited by legislation and union action. The eight-hour day, a norm that is still under challenge 150 years later, was first achieved by Melbourne stonemasons in 1855, though it was not established more generally, even in Australia, until the early 20th century. The weekend, making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of leisure, came even later, around the middle of the 20th century in most developed countries.

The idea that a combination of technological progress and political reform could produce a genuine utopia became an appealing alternative to the ‘pie in the sky’ of an afterlife. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), a critique of 19th century capitalism written from the imagined perspective of the year 2000, was the archetypal example of this literature. Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891) was perhaps the most appealing. Even Marx, sternest critic of the old utopians, had his moments, most notably in The German Ideology (1846). There, he and Engels looked forward to a society in which labour did not depend on the lash of monetary incentives:
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

None of these writers, however, had a theory of economic growth. Neither was one to be found in the literature of classical economics. Keynes’s discussion of economic possibilities was one of the first to spell out the argument that improvements in living standards, based on a combination of technological progress and capital accumulation, might be expected to continue indefinitely.

He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less. This, Keynes thought, would be sufficient to satisfy the ‘old Adam’ in us who needs work in order to be contented.

Keynes himself had no grandchildren, but he was a contemporary of my own grandparents. It seemed to me when I first read his essay that there was a good chance that his vision might be realised in my lifetime. The social democratic welfare state, supported by Keynesian macroeconomic management, had already smoothed many of the sharp edges of economic life. The ever-present threat that we might be reduced to poverty by unemployment, illness or old age had disappeared from the lives of most people in developed countries. It wasn’t even a memory for the young.

There was, it seemed, every reason to expect further progress towards Keynes’s vision. Working hours were decreasing. A comfortable retirement at or before 65 had become a normal expectation. The idea of a lengthy and fairly leisurely university education was increasingly accepted, even if access to higher education was far from universal. More generally, in a labour market where the number of vacancies routinely exceeded the number of jobseekers, responding to economic ‘rewards and penalties’ seemed much less urgent. If one job was unsatisfying or boring, it was a simple matter to quit, take some time off and then find another.

In these favourable conditions, anti-materialist attitudes that had been confined to a Bloomsbury elite in Keynes’s day became widespread, particularly among the young. The enthusiastic consumerism of the 1950s was repudiated in varying degrees by nearly everyone, a trend exemplified by the adoption of blue jeans, previously the cheap and durable everyday wear of unskilled workers. The idea of ‘the environment’ as a problem of more general concern than specific local issues such as air pollution and the preservation of national parks was also a product of the ’60s, book-ended by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and the first Earth Day in 1970. The idea that we could continue on a path of ever-growing material consumption appeared to be not merely unsatisfying but a recipe for ultimate catastrophe.

So on a first reading, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ seemed prophetic. Yet, 40 or so years later, I am a grandparent myself, the year 2030 is rapidly approaching, and Keynes’s vision seems further from reality than ever. At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse.

The situation in Europe was, until recently, very different. Germany’s work hours declined from 2,387 hours annually in 1950 to 1,408 in 2010. France’s declined from 2,241 hours annually in 1950 to 1,552 in 2010. Yet even here, and even before the advent of austerity, there were signs of a turnaround. The loi Aubry, the law which reduced the normal French working week to 35 hours, has been repeatedly weakened. Work-sharing in Germany was highly successful in reducing the impact of the global financial crisis, but that does not seem to have had much effect on German judgments about the desirability of more and harder work for other countries.

Have allowances of free time peaked? A worker at the IRS center in Ogden, USA, 1980s. Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Moreover, far from fading into irrelevance, the struggle to accumulate capital and maintain or increase consumption is more intense than ever. Instead of contracting, the values of the market have penetrated ever further into every aspect of our lives. During the decades leading up to the global financial crisis, the scope and scale of speculative markets grew beyond any conceivable bound. Avarice and usury, as Keynes called them, are worshipped on an unimaginable scale. Financial instruments with notional values in the trillions were routinely traded, creating immense wealth for some (mostly participants in the trade) while bringing ruin and destitution to others (mostly far removed from the scene of the action).

Particularly during the ’90s, it seemed that this wealth was there to be taken by anyone willing to focus their thoughts on financial enrichment at the expense of any broader goals in life. Now that the bubble has burst, the burden of unsustainable debt left behind for both households and governments has ensured that the gods of the marketplace maintain their pre-eminence, even if their worship is much less enthusiastic than before.

How did this reversal come about, and is there any possibility that Keynes’s vision will be realised?

The first of these questions is easily answered. The economic turmoil of the ’70s put an end to the utopianism of the ’60s, and resulted in the resurgence of a hard-edged version of capitalism, variously referred to as neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus. I have used the more neutral term ‘market liberalism’ to describe this set of ideas.

Social democracy must offer more than a lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society

The central theoretical tenet of market liberalism is the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. In the strong form that is most relevant to policy decisions, the hypothesis states that the prices determined in markets for financial assets such as shares, bonds and their various derivatives are the best possible estimates of the value of those assets.

In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer. This claim is rarely spelt out explicitly by its advocates, so it is best known by its derisive label, the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.

As long as market liberalism rules, there is no reason to expect progress towards a less money-driven society. The global financial crisis and the subsequent long recession have fatally discredited its ideas. Nevertheless, the reflexes and assumptions developed under market liberalism continue to dominate the thinking of politicians and opinion leaders. In my book, Zombie Economics (2010), I describe how these dead, or rather undead, ideas have risen from their graves to do yet more damage. In particular, after a resurgence of interest in Keynes’s macroeconomic theory, the entrenched interests and ideas of the era of market liberalism have regained control, pushing disastrous policies of ‘austerity’ and yet more structural ‘reform’ on free-market lines. Social democratic parties have failed to put up any serious resistance so far. Popular anger at the crisis has been channelled into right-wing tribalist movements such as the Tea Party in the US and Golden Dawn in Greece.

This experience makes it clear that, if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society. For this reason, the time is right to re-examine Keynes’s vision of a future where economic scarcity, real or perceived, no longer dominates life as it does today.

To begin with, it is important to consider the limitations of Keynes’s thinking. First, Keynes considered only the developed world, implicitly assuming that the colonialist world order could be sustained indefinitely. Judging from his other writing, including his early work on the Indian economy, Keynes envisaged a gradual increase in living standards, under colonial tutelage, for the poor countries. The idea that a post-scarcity society in Europe and its settler offshoots could coexist with mass poverty elsewhere seems incongruous now, but in 1930, the European empires seemed destined to endure for a long time. The Indian National Congress had declared its goal of independence only the previous year, and the Statute of Westminster, establishing the legislative independence of the settler dominions, was a year in the future.

Once we try to apply Keynes’s reasoning to the world as a whole, it’s clear that the end of scarcity is further away than he supposed. How much further? To be more precise, how much technological progress would be needed for everyone to enjoy the average standard of living of Britain in 1930 (when Keynes was writing) by working only 15 hours a week?

For the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor

By 1990, 60 years after Keynes’s essay, average income for the world as a whole had just reached Britain’s level in 1930. So, it seems we need to add another 60 years, or two generations, to his timescale. On the other hand, because developing countries are mostly adopting existing technology, the average world growth rate of income per person is around three per cent, not the two per cent proposed by Keynes. In that case, an eightfold increase would take only 70 years. So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to 2060 — within the expected lifetime of my children.

The problem of distribution, sharp enough in the Britain of the ’30s, is far worse for the world as a whole. A billion or so people live in destitution, and billions more are poor by any reasonable standard. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor. In fact, more people are rich, by any reasonable historical standard, than are poor.

Even more strikingly, perhaps, more people are obese than are undernourished. And this is not true merely in terms of basic nutrition. Right now, the world produces enough meat to give everyone a diet comparable to the average Japanese person's. This amount could be increased by replacing grain-fed beef with chicken and pork, a step that would also reduce carbon emissions. With another 50 years of technological progress and even a modest effort to aid the poorest onto the path of rapid growth already being followed by most of Asia, poverty could be eliminated. The vast majority of the world’s population could enjoy a living standard comparable, in material terms, to that of the global middle class of today.

A second problem to which Keynes pays only passing attention is that of housework. As a male academic born into a household staffed with domestic servants, he almost certainly did none himself. His discussion reflects this. Looking forward to the problems that might arise in a society with unaccustomed leisure, Keynes mentions ‘the wives of the well-to-do classes’ who ‘cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing’. These traditional tasks had not, of course, been eliminated by technological progress. Rather, they had been contracted out to others, typified by the charwoman in a song quoted by Keynes, whose hope for paradise was to do nothing for all eternity.

Some housework is enjoyable and fulfilling but much of it is drudgery. A central requirement for a post-scarcity society is that no one should have to spend a lot of time on the latter.

The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the ’50s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on) eliminated a huge amount of housework, much of it pure drudgery. By contrast, technological progress for the next 40 years or so was limited. Arguably, the only significant innovation in this period was the microwave oven. As a result, housework alone takes up all of Keynes’ proposed 15 hours a week. Time-use surveys suggest that the average woman in the UK spends around three hours a day on household work (excluding childcare, of which more later) and the average man spends about two hours. Both of these numbers have declined over time, but only slowly.

Market alternatives to most kinds of housework are available. Cooking can be replaced by eating out, washing and ironing can be sent out to a laundry, and (low-paid) workers can be hired to clean houses. Obviously, while people are being paid to do the housework of others, we are a long distance from Keynes’s post-scarcity world. A little less obviously, such a situation demands more time spent in paid work from those who want the money to buy market alternatives.

We might be willing to support surfers in return for non-market contributions to society

Still, the time spent on housework has been falling, and there are good reasons to think that it can fall further, to the point where most housework is done by choice rather than necessity. The rise of the internet and the advent of mobile telephony have drastically simplified a wide range of household chores, from banking and bill-paying to dealing with tradespeople. At the same time, the online world is changing shopping from a necessity to an optional extra, pursued only by those who enjoy it. It allows the requirements for a decent life to be met without any significant interaction with the culture of consumption, exemplified by the shopping mall.

An even more important omission in Keynes’s essay is the effort involved in raising children. Childless himself, Keynes came from a social class in which child rearing was contracted out, to an extent unparalleled before or since. Babies were handed to wet-nurses, cared for by nannies and governesses and then, from the age of eight or even younger, packed off to boarding schools. From the perspective of today’s parents, such a world is hard to imagine. Even if the need for market work were to disappear altogether, parents of young children would not have much time to worry about the need to fill their leisure hours.

But far from weakening Keynes’s case against a money-driven society, the problems of caring for children illustrate the way in which our current economic order fails to deliver a good life, even for the groups who are doing relatively well in economic terms. The workplace structures that define a successful career today require the most labour from ‘prime-age’ workers aged between 25 and 50, the stage when the demands of caring for children are greatest.

For the first time in history the world produces enough food so that none need go hungry: yet we are far from solving the problem of fair distribution. Hot dogs on Puget Sound, 1960s. Photo by Merle Severy/National Geographic/Getty

Work is distributed unequally, and perversely, in other dimensions as well. And yet, in the English-speaking countries at least, this has not meant more leisure so much as more time in retirement, unemployment or otherwise involuntarily excluded from the labour force. The result has been an inequality of leisure, the counterpart to the growing inequality of income. Particularly in the US, families are becoming polarised. On the one hand there is the two-income class of economically successful couple households in which both partners work full-time or more. On the other is the zero-income class, with one or two adults dependent either on welfare benefits or else on intermittent and insecure low-wage employment.

If work was distributed more equally, both between households and over time, we could all be better off. But it seems impossible to achieve this without a substantial reduction in the centrality of market work to the achievement of a good life, and without a substantial reduction in the total hours of work.

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

There remains the question of how to move from a revitalised social democracy to the kind of utopia envisaged by Keynes. It would be absurd to spell out a detailed transitional program, but it’s useful to think about one of the central elements of such a society — a guaranteed minimum income.

In one sense, a guaranteed minimum income involves little more than a re-labelling of the existing benefits provided by all modern welfare states (with the US, as always, a notable exception). In most modern welfare states, everyone is eligible for income support which should be sufficient to prevent them from falling into poverty. Those who cannot work because of age or disability are automatically entitled to such support, while unemployed workers receive either insurance benefits related to their previous wages or some basic allowance conditional on job search.

In a post-scarcity society, everyone would be guaranteed an income that yielded a standard of living significantly better than poverty, and this guarantee would be unconditional. The move from a near-poverty benefit subject to eligibility conditions to a liveable, guaranteed minimum income would require both an increase in productivity, such that a smaller number of workers could produce an adequate income for all, and some fairly radical changes in social attitudes.

It seems clear enough that technological progress can generate the necessary productivity gains, so what is needed most is a change in attitudes to work that would make a guaranteed minimum income socially sustainable. The first is that the production of market goods and services needs to become pleasant enough that those doing it don’t mind supporting others who choose not to. The second is that the option of receiving a guaranteed minimum income does not become a trap, leading into the kind of idleness that produces despair.

We can imagine a few steps towards this goal. One would be to allow recipients of the minimum income to choose voluntary work as an alternative to job search. In many countries, a lot of the required structures are in placed under ‘workfare’ or ‘work for the dole’ schemes. All that would be needed is to replace the punitive and coercive aspects of these schemes with positive inducements. A further step would be to allow a focus on cultural or sporting endeavours, whether or not those endeavours involve achieving the levels of performance that currently attract (sometimes lavish) public and market support.

An Australian example might help to illustrate the point. Under our current economic structures, someone who makes and sells surfboards can earn a good income, as can someone good enough to join the professional surfing circuit. But a person who just wants to surf is condemned, rightly enough under our current social relations, as a parasitic drain on society. With less need for anyone to work long hours at unpleasant jobs, we might be more willing to support surfers in return for non-market contributions to society such as membership of a surf life-saving club. Ultimately, people would be free to choose how best to contribute ‘according to their abilities’ and receive from society enough to meet at least their basic needs.

We do have the technological capacity to start down that path and to approach the goal within the lives of our grandchildren. That’s a couple of generations behind Keynes’s optimistic projection, but still a hope that could counter the current tides of cynicism and despair.

This brings us to the final, really big question. Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?

In 2008, 16 economists contributed to an interesting volume called Revisiting Keynes, edited by Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga. Many of those economists argued that Keynes had been proved wrong. Experience, they said, had shown that people will always want to consume more and will be willing to work harder to do it. Implicit in much of their discussion was the idea that the US economy, as of 2008, represented the way of the future. With the advantage of a few years’ hindsight, this assumption seems every bit as dubious as the view against which Keynes argued in 1930, that the Depression would continue indefinitely.

The steady growth in consumption expenditure in the US in the decades leading up to the financial crisis depended on debt. And of course, the need to service debt necessitated a willingness to work long hours. Now, after millions of foreclosures and bankruptcies, a large proportion of the population has been excluded from credit markets. Households in general have seen the need to build up their savings.

More importantly, the culture of conspicuous consumption, which reached unparalleled heights of excess in the 1990s and early 2000s, is on the wane. The most striking emblem of this change is the end of the American love affair with the motor car. Throughout the 20th century the car stood in American culture as a symbol of personal freedom attainable through consumption expenditure. Year after year, pausing only briefly for recessions and slowdowns, more and more cars were driven further and further, burning more and more petrol. But this endless growth has now, apparently, come to an end. The use of petrol in the US peaked in 2005, before the advent of the economic crisis. The distance driven has also peaked and Americans are buying fewer and smaller cars. Economic factors, including higher fuel prices, have a role to play. But anecdotal evidence suggests that there is more to it than this. Increasingly, driving is seen as an unpleasant chore rather than an exercise of freedom. Young people in particular have been less eager than their parents to start driving and acquire cars.

Such shifts bring bigger changes in their wake. Without cars and commuting, large houses in the suburbs are much less attractive. After decades of steady growth, the size of new houses seems to be declining. Smaller houses mean fewer possessions to fill them, and less appeal for a privatised life based on private consumption.

An escape from what Keynes called ‘the tunnel of economic necessity’ is still open to us. Yet it will require radical changes in the economic structures that drive the chase for money and in the attitudes shaped by a culture of consumption. After decades of finance-driven capitalism, it takes an effort to recall that such changes ever seemed possible.

Yet it is now clear that market liberalism has failed in its own terms. It promised that if markets were set free, everyone would benefit in the long run. In reality, most households in developed countries experienced less income growth under market liberalism than in the decades of Keynesian social democracy after 1945. Of more immediate importance, except for the top one per cent there has been no recovery from the crisis of 2008, and even worse looms ahead. And despite the initial success of the backlash against Keynesian macroeconomic policies, austerity is now failing in political as well as economic terms.

Popular anger has boiled over in a string of electoral defeats for the advocates of austerity. But, unlike the right-wing tribalism that has formed part of that backlash, progressive politics cannot, in the end, rely on anger. It must offer the hope of a better life. That means reclaiming utopian visions such as that of Keynes.

Read more essays on automation & robotics, economics, the future and work


  • Karl Widerquist

    I think this is great. The failure of Keynes's prediction to come true has more to do with policy decisions than any changes in economic conditions over the last 80 years. I wrote a similar take on "Economics Possibilities of Our Grandparents" in Dissent Magazine a few years ago: I didn't mention what policies were needed, but a guaranteed minimum income was exactly what I had in mind.

    • therain

      So you expect me, a worker who brings actual value to the world, to pay for your guaranteed income?

      • Ramone

        Did you even read the article?

  • Elf Sternberg

    There are fewer things more surreal than seeing Quiggan make an argument that finds echoes in the Financial Times of London, specifically Isabella Kaminsky's "Towards a Steady State Economy":

  • EllenHunt

    Read Robert Hare. Psychopaths have a significant effect on world politics. This utopia requires a virtual end to the human desire to dominate all others and enjoy watching people weep, squirm and gnash their teeth in utter defeat. That desire for dominance is why we will not see that future. It is why people like Romney steal hundreds of millions from pension funds and bankrupt companies, then blithely decide to run for president and think themselves great guys. Total lack of conscience. It is why bankers fill their noses with cocaine in exclusive wall street clubs and lay their prostitutes over tables, cutting deals to steal more and then bribe president Obama into not putting them in prison. Total lack of conscience.

    • Mike

      That's not human nature. That's a wanker. Human nature is a construct, created by us all. We decide if this behaviour is acceptable. Currently, the world seems to think it is - but I would bet you a lot of 'money' (hah! if I had it) that in a hundred years 'human nature' will be considered to be something else entirely.

    • Thomas Mullally

      Hah! Yes, it is a spiteful society. And I'm afraid there is the perpetuation of Hobbesianism in the article. The author is correct that technology was usually subordinated by religion and ethics from the time of the Greeks (who eschewed technology), until the 18th century. However it is false to think that our lives have markedly improved. As noted, under industrial and digital technologies, leisure time has been relentlessly reduced, and we are anxiously trying to get it back.

  • Pat S

    I really like this piece, although I wonder if John has a response to the "Peak Oil" critique re the arguments of this piece? I.E. in its non-doomer form, this says that limited global supplies of petroleum intersecting with growing demand are going to lead to really serious challenges in the coming decades for our industrial global economy, no matter how we distribute wealth? Perhaps we will be hard-pressed even if using innovations and renewable energy to maintain current levels of material consumption for the next little bit. Even in this case though, I'm still all for a more social-democratic political economy - indeed, this would be a far better system if we _are_ going to struggle with oil shortages, rather than unbridled market liberalism.

    • Norman Hanscombe

      Facing up to the realities of non-renewable resource depletion is something our species succeeds in avoiding.

      • therain

        Wow, have you been living under a rock? Ever heard of fracking? Our technological advances are allowing us to gather more energy sources then we ever thought possible.

    • Mike

      Peak oil is indeed an issue. Kurzweil argues that solar will sort that out, but I wouldn't be so sure. Thing is, we haven't even really begun to focus our minds on change yet. When oil really starts running out, it will make us more likely to take these things seriously.

  • Zarathustra

    We have created happiness. *blink*

    No need for struggle anymore. Just relax. We are above nature. Pursue knowledge if you have nothing better to do. No pressure. There is no greatness, no glory to be achieved. All violence is to be abhorred, and thus so is its source: individuality, independence. We are all in this together, you are only important as part of the group, and no more important than any other part. Where Titans once strode, we scuttle. Our footsteps are whispers, never to be heard.

    • Thiago

      "Where Titans once strode, we scuttle."
      I see, in a world without poverty, "Titans" would be prevented from stride... over innocent people. "Would Einstein have worked hard as he did to unravel the misteries of Universe if he wouldn't have had the satisfaction of knowing poor children were starving?" seems to be the question you poses us. Unless, of course, the Titans you mentioned are the robber barons of yore (and today).
      "There is no greatness, no glory to be achieved."
      Because glory comes from being made partner before being 30, nothing matters but money.
      "Our footsteps are whispers, never to be heard."
      I think not being able to get a job did more to stop Niels Abel's footsteps (not always the noisiest footsteps are the ones belonging to the worthiest journeys) than the end of poverty in the world would have.

  • Elias Kokkinis

    I think this is a very interesting article, that shows that indeed there is a way out of this chaos that broods all over (mostly) the developed world. However, I think one important issue is not addressed and can pretty much dissolve this train of thought. The issue of resources. Technological advancement is integrated with an abudance of natural resources. Every single chip, no matter how small or big, simple or complicated, requires resources that are hard to get and limited. Hence, the technology cannot grow without limits, and perhaps these limits are much smaller than we think of and do not allow the development of a society as described in this article. Perhaps, more than a change of economic and state policies, a more deep change is required in terms of "common sense" that will allow a simple way of living, based on few resources and the coverage of all basic human needs. And then technology can offer a solution.

  • old_timer_37

    I’ll add a few, loosely connected observations provoked by John’s
    more coherent and more rational essay.

    Colonialism, was an early form of “trickle down” capitalism.

    Machines are non-human slave labor which have made human subsistence
    labor uncompetitive in more and more venues; thus freeing them for other

    GDP, is often conflated with economic size and is used to
    measure economic growth. I suggest that it is actually a measure of national economic
    metabolism. Metabolic rates for an organism or a nation can change rapidly,
    sometimes disconnected from growth or health.
    Their significance in planning requires one to define them in terms of per-unit.
    For example, the rich contribute more per-person to metabolism, but less per
    unit of capital. As wealth concentrates, beyond an optimum range, metabolism
    per nation drops.

    Utopian economic visions drive centralization of governments
    and social systems, just as utopian pictures of heaven drive centralization of
    churches. Good for short term growth towards specific objectives, but in the
    long term this undermines a nation’s ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges
    and changes in its environment (evolve).

    Life has successfully evolved, over 4 billion years, into a
    web of countless autonomous entities of varying properties and sizes,
    vigorously competing and co-operating with one another, rather than bound up in
    a single, massive hierarchical life-form in which all within it operate in
    harmony to preserve its existence. Had there been an evolutionary advantage to
    the second option, it would have prevailed by now.

    I’m not suggesting laissez-faire capitalism. I am suggesting
    something more interesting, more adaptable and more durable than a utopian

    • Chris Hennick

      "Life has successfully evolved, over 4 billion years, into aweb of countless autonomous entities of varying properties and sizes,
      vigorously competing and co-operating with one another, rather than bound up in
      a single, massive hierarchical life-form in which all within it operate in
      harmony to preserve its existence. Had there been an evolutionary advantage to
      the second option, it would have prevailed by now."

      You're forgetting that humans are still adapting to the unprecedented changes we've seen in the last thousand years or so, and that the environment now co-evolves with us.

    • Clay Schott

      I'm very late to this post (having been brought here by The Economist's link to John's essay in Ryan Avent's post titled "A Theory of Troubles" in the Free Exchange column of their 2014 February 17 issue).

      I'm prompted by your comment that "machines are non-human slave labor" to bring up this related point:

      In James Barrat's October 2013 book "Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era", he is only the latest writer of many to address the very real possibility that machines will become intelligent enough that humans will have to seriously deal with the conflict that enslaving them raises.

      Keynes cannot be blamed for this lack of foresight into the possibility that machines could one day no longer automatically be counted on to only serve humans and reduce their drudgery.

      What, I wonder, will come of the possibility of a 15-hour workweek if we are forced to give autonomy to our future artificially intelligent machines and they choose to use that autonomy to work for their own interests and leave us to ourselves?

  • Liz

    After a point money loses its intrinsic meaning and becomes a way of keeping score -providing status, prestige, power. Human nature has been to seek ways to stand out and/or dominate in both "good" and "bad" ways since there were humans.
    Also, as we can see with the underclass of many Western cities, the predominance of "leisure" over "productive activitiy" has created plenty of problems. I would add that there are a significant portion of the non-underclass would have thses problems. Once the scramble of day to day necessities is no longer an issue, we have the first world diseases of drug addiction, hoarding, anorexia, etc.
    A 15 hour work week sounds fantastic - but it goes against human nature as displayed throughout the history of humanity. Nature favors growth and upheaval over stasis - struggle over tranquility.

    • Thomas Mullally

      Yes.... we are supposed to accumulate, or else we will lose as others compete to take our stock at an equally fast rate. It is all perverse.

      I'm afraid there is the perpetuation of Hobbesianism in the article. The author is correct that technology was usually subordinated by religion and ethics from the time of the Greeks (who eschewed technology), until the 18th century. However it is false to think that our lives have markedly improved. As noted, under industrial and digital technologies, leisure time has been relentlessly reduced, and we are anxiously trying to get it back.

  • PorkyPig

    note the normal sized bodies in the motel pool picture compared to today's typical elephant sized american

    • Swami_Binkinanda

      That was before High Fructose Corn Syrup, Roundup Ready plants, genetically modified organisms, dope addled steroid enhanced meat like products and media targeted like crack to push the gimmie button in the lizard brains of many Americans (Fox Networks-we hate black people and we might show you a nipple or a suicide!)

      • therain

        More like pre-welfare state.

        • Danny Regan Thorpe

          what do you mean pre-welfare state? the top rate of income tax was 90% during these times. The welfare state was a lot bigger

    • NYNik

      Yes - I noticed the same, pre-obesity epidemic, when I visited the "Woodstock" museum in Bethel NY. Not many fatties in those old films & photos!

  • James White

    I've made the argument that this idea of a 15 hour week misses the point about what work is becoming. Obviously, the current period is taking things backwards, but for me work is metamorphosing into leisure. The distinction between the two is shrinking. This is the shift to the services economy. The failure of policy in my mind - is that by making people poorer, devaluing the currency, the shift to the services economy necessarily slows. I believe it worthwhile noting that John Quiggin would probably still do more than 15 hours of work a week even if mandated. Because, like me, he really enjoys his work. Work is his leisure and economic development must be about creating similar opportunities for more people.

  • Tawny

    ah, but how, even if you manage to get a populace to agree that this is a good idea, do you actually get it implemented by powers that be? There are vested interests who definitely do not want people having leisure time and not being slaves to thier machine!!

    • Mike

      This is true. The only way this can change is if the consciousness and values of humanity change. However, the internet has done a lot to speed this up. We're having this conversation after all!

    • susieq777

      Until the majority of the world not only realises the extent to which we are enslaved by these puppeteers, but does something about ending their reign, they will continue to wreak havoc on the earth. It seems that as a whole we are just too sugared-up, too GMFed, too entertained, too dumbed down, too **naive** to believe that the people at the very top of the great pyramid scheme are pulling the strings of our lives, and that they are not benevolent, have not set up the current system because it's the best one but because it suits them the best. It suits them for us to be battery hens. It suits them that we have been too stupidly duped to realise how many chains they have wrapped around every single ankle in the world.

  • Nilofar Ansher

    Quiggins kept my attention engaged right to the last word, taking us on a political and cultural journey with clarity and looking at all sides of the debate. However, he doesn't really answer the question he puts forth in the headline: if indeed we had a 15-hour-work week in the future, what would humans do?

    Today, a lot more of us are able to take beautiful pictures or design graphics than a decade ago. Tools are aiding our leisure, in effect. Then, apart from art, music, films, dance, cooking or writing, we would have other forms of creativity in future - highly specialized and niche at the same time. However, not all of us are creatively inclined and this article posits an either / or binary choice. Either you work or you indulge in leisure. Why isn't there any room for balance and flexibility? Wouldn't customized work options be normative in 60 years?

    There's the other point that many of us love our work. We love being productive, we thrive on having definite goals and challenges to take up each day. I think, from the perspective of evolution, we thrived and survived because we pushed our physical and intellectual limitations to overcome natural adversities. We were able to adapt and invent new technologies because of the way we are wired - towards seeking, creating, being useful and molding the natural environment to our changing needs. Am not sure a placid, non-needy human can survive.

    The animation flick Wall E was chilling in its portrayal of how humans will be rotund in their obese obsolescence while robots pick up their laundry a few centuries into the future. With no manual labor, we are reduced to creatures that consume. The movie actually made me think of Adam and Eve in a mythical paradise. Without the need to hunt for food, to study, to build structures, to weave clothes, to take care of children, to nurture trees, pet animals - without the motivation for survival - what would they have done? Just keep exploring the heavenly gardens? For how long? The market tries to sell us this vision of a free, happy, labor-free future, controlled and protected by robots. Am not sure it's for our good. Any thoughts?

    • Mike

      Of course you can keep working. Simply get on the web, form a group with a bunch of set goals to gather like-minded people, and then get on with it. Science and the betterment of humanity would need to be one of the cornerstones of a post-scarcity society - the others being family/social interaction, art and culture, the remaining necessary work, and leisure/sports. One way to acheive this would be to make it government policy to actively reduce the amount of jobs there are through technology. This happens increasingly anyway, but making it policy would sharpen the pencil as it were. Check out the Zeitgeist Movement who have spent the last three years creating a much more developed look at this argument.

      • Nilofar Ansher

        "reduce the amount of jobs there are through technology" - but what is and isn't technology? Do you believe that technology comprises only the Web and electro-mechanical devices? Even pencils, eraser and textile are products of technology. Any apparatus or material thing you use comes because of technology. A technology-free life means you stop using any man-made object. Am not sure even the cave man would have survived the onslaught of nature without his tools and crude implements. A life without technology is impossible and a misnomer to be precise.

        • Mike

          Hi Nilofar – I agree completely and fear you may have misunderstood what I was saying. Reducing work through technology means increasing our technological capabilities, not reducing them. And - I feel this is important – with the political goal of reducing labour as the main driving force. Politicians are always keen on creating jobs. I believe society needs to rethink that default position.

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    • bsaunders

      Working does not have to mean working for other people to earn money.

    • Michael Christenson II

      You pose an interesting question, and I especially wanted to respond to your Adam/Eve garden conundrum. Adam and Eve were working; there job was to care for the garden and animals - to tend the trees et al. It wasn't toiling labour, but still labour.

      I think we will always want to labour; and you're right in pointing out that some people immensely enjoy this: I would state that most people enjoy the challenges. We will also always be consumers; it's just that our taste for what we consume changes. It is that boredom in consumption that drives a lot of electronic innovations today.

      I think that this is a laudable goal, to reduce the amount of time need to work in order to survive. This article really speaks to the need of writing down the goals that we want to achieve in order to define what that even is.

      I'm a programmer by trade, and I see how many things I can create or automate out of the way. I even automate part of the coding process out of the way; my trade is constantly doing that. The difference with automation in my life versus others in differing trades is accessibility in my opinion.

      Instead of imagining an employer putting robots in to make a particular part of a factory line less labour intensive, what would it look like if they allowed the workers to substitute the labour with their own automations? Even if it were obtainable for the labourer, would it even be allowable by the employer? Would the labourers wage be unaffected if it were allowed?

      I think the one answer to all those questions is currently a resounding no.

      I propose that we as a society may be ready to move on, but those with the resources and hiring power under their control are just fine with how things are. Any feint in the direction of less control over how the labour is done, or to even consistent and steady wages and benefits, brings resentment from the business owners; at least here in the US.

      I think it's a laudable goal, but access to resources, or the means of production in traditional terms, is held tightly and will prolong the coming of the golden age. Movements like Open Source, DIY, Maker Spaces, and the internet community as a whole are changing things, but only by first sidestepping the main means of doing their work in the first place. We are essentially replacing the standard jobs with more of a tool gift economy. We share our tools and the teachingit requires to use them. We also network heavily with each other, passing jobs on by word of mouth.

      I see this as a viable way of bringing the future about in small bits. We can increase the speed of progress by centralizing on the tools we need to build and hand out to others in order for them to join this revolution of sorts. Then building such and going out in full force into every community to help implement it.

      To that end, this article would have done more by laying out the means to unify our goals, and pitching in to the network already in force. It was a great article, but I came away only inspired to continue what I and others are already doing. It did not add to the conversation.

    • therain

      The current USA administration is working towards a welfare state, where those who don't want to work and provide no value sponge of those like us. We're going to fix this, but it's scary they were able to change it as much as they did. People like free stuff,

    • Thomas Mullally

      I'm afraid there is the perpetuation of Hobbesianism in the article. The author is correct that technology was usually subordinated by religion and ethics from the time of the Greeks (who eschewed technology), until the 18th century. However it is false to think that our lives have markedly improved. As noted, under industrial and digital technologies, leisure time has been relentlessly reduced, and we are anxiously trying to get it back.

  • Bernecky

    The problem is the deduction.

    Obtaining a 15-hr work week, despite what members of Congress would have their constituents believe, is as difficult as obtaining an increase in the minimum wage: What's at stake, but the ten minutes it'll take employers to order stationery reflecting the new prices for their products.
    The question is how we'd respond if the citizens of an allied nation decided to work 15-1/2 hours per week.
    When the first Republican sought permission to leave the world of the working stiff and to enter the world of the self-employed, the first thing he promised to take with him was the cost of doing business. For what other reason would the first Democrat have agreed to carry that guy's load for so long as one minute.

  • Norman Hanscombe

    Utopians will mever die out. In the 60s 'progressives' 9especially in areas such as sociology, scoffed at any of us who pointed out the problems associated with turning such dreams into reality. Well-intentioned Utopians, like the poor, will always be with us, doing far more harm weight for age than most groups.

    • Mike

      Utopians are people with no idea how to make their goals a reality, so yes, I agree. But the technology already exists to create a far better future for us all. In fact, it existed ten years ago. The problem is now a political and socio-cultural one, not a technological one. This is not, however to be under-estimated. What could be harder than getting the UN, and other leadership centres, to agree on something sensible? Maybe that is naieve, but it's certainly not impossible.

    • Andrew Buckley

      There will always be "realists" providing "reasons" why the world can't be a better place, who do not face up to the ludicrous realities of the present time. There is no law of nature which states humans can't organise for their own betterment. Such derision is not helpful.

  • Brian

    Leisure for many of us frequently involves hetero-eroticism. It is striking how 'socialised' are the visions of 'what we would all do if we didn't have to work any more' cited in this article. Sex seems not to be anybody's priority. I suggest this is because the taken-for-granted context within which we will enjoy shorter working weeks is the de-sexed middle class household of ma, pa and the 2.2 children (itself a increasing rarity). The discussion of who does the housework misses the main point, which is, how to bring eroticism into mainstream culture. This in turn takes us back to the 60s, where we aspired to make love and not babies. Without a cultural revolution, 'we' would be struggling to know what to do with our extra free time. The reality principle still dominates our thinking.

  • Luke Lea

    What the world needs are good part-time jobs in the country.

  • Edward Bellamy

    Edward Bellamy (author of Looking Backward (1888)) was cousin and cohort of Francis Bellamy (author of the Pledge of Allegiance). The pledge was the origin of the Nazi salute and that behavior (see the work of the historian Dr. Rex Curry). Their dogma motivated many socialists in the socialist Wholecaust (of which the Holocaust was a part) under the socialists Stalin, Mao and Hitler. So, after Keynes wrote about economic possibilities for our grandchildren (in the 1930's) the government-created great depression continued to worsen and then millions were slaughtered in the socialist utopias of the Wholecaust.

  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    More ideal time also boring.Boring is man`s greatest enemy it created crimes, sex offenses,vegetable life and invitation to death,. There must be balance work and leisure. Man is creative animal aim oriental without aim he never survive in the world

    • Mike

      You can have all the 'aim' you like with or without money. Most true artists and scientists don't do it for the money. They do it because they love discovery and the unknown. When all your needs are taken care of your wants change too. If we can shift our societal values to reflect love, sharing and the betterment of humanity then we can acheive anything.

      • Jeff B.

        But that would mean HIPPIEEZZ! would WIN and we can't have that, oh no, not at all, no sirree. So here come the neo-Real Guys with their neo-fedoras and their neo-khaki pants and most of all their neo-HAIRCUTS to put all us HIPPIEEZZ back in our place. And not only that, they get to be the hip crowd, too.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Look at the London riots of 2011. A non-working workforce will not be lolling in cafes, but smashing them up.

    • Mike

      That's because they live below the relative poverty line in a world that constantly tells them they need Nike trainers and flatscreen TVs. Hardly surprising that they go and take them when the situation arises.

      • The Sanity Inspector

        I'm sure you didn't really mean to so casually slander the honest poor of the world, did you?

        • Mike

          I was of course referring to those that did go out and steal Nike trainers and flatscreen TVs - it can't be slander if it happened, which it did. And besides, I was making a point that it isn't surprising when so many do go out and take things that they have been denied by society, and yet have dangled in front of them on a daily basis in the mainstream media and on every billboard they walk past. Of course not everyone in "the world" who lives below the UK poverty line (each country has its own, just as each country has a different standard of living) was present at the London riots - that would be patently absurd. And of course not everyone who is 'poor' steals. That too is absurd. But then, I didn't say that did I? Equally, your original point seems to argue that anyone who doesn't work engages in "smashing" activity. So I'm a bit confused as to what point you were trying to make. Or perhaps you were being sarcastic?

  • Jan Morgan

    I enjoyed this article and agree with its basic analysis, but the world is changing much faster than the author indicates. Jeremy Rifkin's book, The Third Industrial Revolution depicts a world of energy change and of societal change that presages a dramatic change in political and economic structures. The developments in "three-dimensional computing" to produce much of what we use, the health-care implications using smart phones, "group" investing in so-called (in the past) emerging societies, etc., as well as the dramatic drop in world birth rates, all suggest a remarkably different future world - perhaps not quite Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity", but who knows? I for one am optimistic!

  • William

    While this is a very interesting read, the real problem is that it assumes a radical change of human nature is possible. Nothing in the history of the race would suggest that is even remotely possible, but his entire thesis requires it. In the end he is really just simplifying the historical facts as well as the arguments of both the positions with which he disagrees and those with which he agrees.

    • Mike

      Not so! For the vast majority of human history (pre-agriculture) we lived as nomadic hunter gatherers without money. In fact, there is absolutely no reason to believe that 'human nature' (whatever that actually means) should be one thing or another. If anything the only real human nature is our adaptability. It certainly has no relationship to money.

  • Scott

    Keynes was a self-described spokesman for the educated bourgeoisie, as his epigones then and now continue to be. The end of scarcity without the end of the class which enforces scarcity out of abundance is not a Utopian vision. It is just another form of the ruling ideas associated with capitalism, in Quiggin's case social democracy.

  • Chris Marrou

    Perhaps the 15-hour work week doesn't exist yet because most of our increased productivity has been eaten up by taxation. The US federal government used 3% of the GDP in 1930, but 25% today, with total taxation at about 40% in the US. That is also possibly the reason so much increased consumption was financed by debt in the 1990s-2000s; government had taxed away most everything else. Without 40% in taxes, the work week could go from 40 to 24 hours easily. Of course, that would require that current government employees quit their jobs and work 24 hours, too. Whether that's more or less than currently depends on your politics.

    • Andrew Buckley

      That wouldn't require government employees quitting their jobs; that would require us to stop using bank created money.

  • 5Arete23

    The following quote from the article is the wave of a magic wand that suggests that the rest of the article is not well founded: "A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit."

    Allocation (and coordination!) of capital and labor by means other than market signals does not work well. Allocation and coordination become even more difficult as economies become more complex. I quail before trying to explain these statements briefly but a start would be F. A. Hayek's classic paper "The Use of Knowledge in Society", which one easily can find on the WWWeb. This essay, which is understandable by non-specialists, is one of the main reasons that Hayek received an economics Nobel Prize. A more simplistic introduction to similar ideas is found in L. E. Read's essay "I, Pencil", which also is easily found on the WWWeb.

    • Leon Haller

      The author does not understand even basic economics, which is scary (but hardly unusual) in a modern professor of economics. At bottom, most are socialists using arcane jargon to make themselves seem more intelligent than they really are, and to persuade the rest of us that what they are preaching is "scientific", instead of the codification of their own value preferences.

  • Hell is optional

    The Higher Education model is bankrupt and proven by creating indentured servants and interns clawing around for solvency on a vast scale trying for personally meaningless occupations. This Platonism about the perfect form where it's all good flies in the face of human evolution. The successful survive best who grow by finding some process they enjoy and freeing their minds to perfect whatever and in the process more benefit. The lesson is that higher educational institutions need to be placement markets rather than approval stations.

  • DBrodess

    The funny thing is that right now in the USA people work an "average" of 16.7 hours per week per person. That is... if you take all the hours worked in the economy in a year (about 280billion) and divide it by the approx 320m of us and divide it again by 52 you get 16.7. So, if you think about it, we are pretty close to the Keynesian ideal. The work is obviously concentrated on about 1/2 of the population with the other half "selecting" leisure (either actively or passively).

    • Michael Christenson II

      It is not the same because that other half is not selecting leisure; just mere survival. They have limited access to education and even more limited access to education that is relevant or the means to implement it.

    • Jeff Blanks

      You can't include everyone in the U.S. in the equation. You should at least remove everyone under roughly 18, about half the people between 18 and 21, and everyone above roughly 65. How many people (and hence how many hours per person) are you left with then?

  • Don_Wilson

    At essay's end Quiggin writes matter-of-factly:

    "Yet it is now clear that market liberalism has failed in its own terms" -- an arguable claim which, to quote Quiggin's earlier words, seems every bit as dubious as the view widely held in the 1930s that market liberalism had failed in
    its own terms.

    I was going to quote a long passage from Stuart Hampshire's memoir, "Innocence & Experience" (1989), pp. 4 - 7, in which he recollects in personal terms what young well-educated men like himself believed about the future, but the point would prolly sail over your head.

  • Rob Cornelius
  • Sonu Kumar

    If you are reading this at work - maybe you already know :-)

  • Dave

    Oops. An article about utopia -- accompanied by a photo showing only white people.

  • Leon Haller

    Whole article is just utopian nonsense. The author merely assumes that technology will solve all problems. There is no empirical evidence for this. Read any number of books about the coming US fiscal bankruptcy of the entitlement state, and then tell me how you can reduce the workweek down to 15 hours for everyone (except those who love their work). The brute reality is that working hours for the entire planetary population that is capable of productivity (a huge and growing portion of the planet is NOT, whether due to health needs, old age, simple stupidity, or chronic sociopathic behavior) are only going to increase for the remainder of our lives. The fiscal holes of USA, Europe, Japan, and many other countries will require all of us who are not yet physically incapacitated to work + save, work + save, ever more, or else there will be widespread government debt defaults and financial implosions, leading to global economic chaos, starvation, and possibly world war.

    There might one day be a better trade-off between work and leisure (I would certainly prefer a situation where I could work half as much for exactly half my salary - but what job allows that?!), but it will arise only in future centuries. No reader will live to see that happy future.

  • therain

    Do the readers of this article realize that every single one of Keynes theories has been wrong? That's a zero percent success rate, and yet people still listen to him. Mind boogling.

    • Paleologue

      Right. There are scores of sources, all clamoring to convince us that Keynes' theories have been disproven. Yet the core observation remains, that in an economic downturn you still have millions of individuals anxious to work... thousands of factories anxious to reopen... whole continents of land needing to be tilled... and bankers hoping to be repaid. The only thing missing to make the economy work is... money. Without enough of the stuff, nothing can happen.

      So the answer is simple: create more money. If you like the principle of balancing the books you can simply borrow it from the future.

      The important part, though, the part people don't like having to do, is that once the pump has been primed, everyone has come back to life and the good times are a-rolling, it's time to raise taxes. And pay back the till for all that money you created.

      That's the ONLY reason Keynes' approach can be said to not work. We don't enjoy having to make it work. We want to continue living forever in a land of cheap money and low taxes. Eventually, price inflation grabs us by the foot.

      The formula is simple. Just as the party begins to get raucous, a wise host takes away the punch bowl.

      • Infoczar

        You can have a FEW social services as long as the free market is healthy but you slow minded folks who can't grasp nuance have hamstrung the free market with your entitlements until it is barely limping. Back off and let it recover - you have a moral responsibility to allow it to do what it does best -which is give opportunity to everyone but the most absolute incapable (who are the only ones we actually need to cover).

        • Paleologue

          Once jobs are available to all, you'd be surprised how much social spending can be eliminated. The courts, prisons and welfare agencies would have far less to do if everyone had to get up in the morning and go to work.

          As it is, there are whole regions of the country, not to mention the centers of our major cities, where young people only get up to waste another day on the street, getting into trouble. Because there are no jobs for them.

          Your formula for success is to consider people who are already rich "the only ones we actually need to cover". When in fact they are the only ones not needing any cover; they have provided for themselves.

          • Infoczar

            "As it is, there are whole regions of the country, not to mention the centers of our major cities, where young people only get up to waste another day on the street, getting into trouble. Because there are no jobs for them." Created by social welfare/social justice. The jobs you talk about are created naturally in a free market and are not created at all in socialist systems.