In Economics, Tomorrow Never Comes

In 1928, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he imagined the world a century later. By 2028, he predicted, things would be so good that no one would need to worry about making money. In fact, the principal problem people were going to face, according to Keynes, would be what to do with all their free time: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.” 

In fact, the average American works as many hours today as he or she did in 1970 and is lucky to get a couple of weeks off in a year. Overall, wealth has increased, but in America, almost all the increase has gone to the richest 1%. European countries have been more equitable, as least in the distribution of free time. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, “The average employed American works about one hundred and forty hours more per year than the average Englishman and three hundred hours more than the average Frenchman. (Current French law mandates that workers get thirty paid vacation days per year, British law twenty-eight; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero.)”[1] 

Ah, the glorious, leisurely future! Always just around the corner, but never quite arriving. Think I'm being harsh about progress? Get a taste of evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote that “Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.”[2] Jared Diamond isn’t convinced by the pro-progress propaganda either, though he’s a bit more diplomatic in his doubts:

“Don’t words such as ‘civilization,’ and phrases such as ‘rise of civilization,’ convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are ‘better’ than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed.”[3]

[1] (The New Yorker, 5/26/14, p. 74) by Elizabeth Kolbert
[2] Gould (1988) “On Replacing the Idea of Progress with an Operational Notion of Directionality,” in M.H. Nitecki (ed.), Evolutionary Progress. p. 319.
[3] Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 18.

(Excerpted from Civilized to Death, coming in 2016 from Simon and Schuster.)