Mike Kueber's Blog

September 17, 2012

Sunday Book Review #83 – How Much Is Enough?

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:03 am
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How Much is Enough?, subtitled “Money and the Good Life,” is a philosophical book by father and son Robert and Edward Skidelsky.  Robert, the father, is a British historian who previously wrote a biography on economist John Maynard Keynes, and Robert, the son, is a philosophy professor.  Together, they attempt to explain what went wrong with Keynes’s prediction in 1930 that mankind would achieve “the good life” by 2030 and what can be done to get mankind back on track.

John Maynard Keynes is one of the most famous economists of all time.  While in college, I learned that Keynes had led the movement to persuade the world that the business cycle could be tamed by the wise use of fiscal and monetary measures – i.e., a recession or depression could be averted or mitigated by the application of a government stimulus.  His thinking became so broadly accepted by 1965 that Milton Friedman, an economics-policy adversary, conceded, “We are all Keynesians now,” and in 1971 President Nixon declared, as he took America off the gold standard, “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”    

But the Skidelskys book isn’t concerned with the business cycle.  The jumping-off point for their book is an essay written in 1930 by Keynes titled, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”  In the essay, Keynes suggested that science, technology, and compound interest would enable mankind by 1930 to provide for itself with only 15 hours a week of labor.  He believed that mankind would then, for the first time in its history, have significant amounts of leisure, and the most pressing issue would be how “to live wisely and agreeably and well,” i.e., “the good life.”

Obviously, Keynes’s prediction is not coming to fruition (people are working harder than ever), so the first chapter in this book is aptly titled, “Keynes’s Mistake.”  According to the authors, there are three explanations:

  1. The Joys of Work.  People enjoy working, especially since modern work involves less drudgery.  Alternatively, many people prefer their work over their leisure. 
  2. The Pressure to Work.  Technology has shifted more people into the low-paying service sector and the resulting income inequality forces those people to work more hours to avoid poverty.
  3. Insatiability.  There are numerous components of insatiability – getting bored with what you have, inherent scarcity of certain goods (e.g., a good view), and maximizing utility – but the most important component is wanting what someone else has.  In the Bible, this would be called coveting thy neighbor’s goods; in America, it is called keeping up with the Joneses.  The authors describe consumption as conspicuous and competitive and write about the snob and bandwagon effects.

The second chapter is titled, “The Faustian Bargain.”  The bargain in favor of capitalism is characterized as Faustian because the multitude of evils presented by capitalism (most importantly, greed) are accepted by nations because it is the economic system that will create the greatest wealth, which is needed to address overwhelming poverty throughout the world.  The trick is that somehow mankind is supposed to retain its morality while living in a world motivated by greed so that once we have accumulated enough wealth to eliminate poverty, then we can reform our economic system to produce greater good to more people.  

Rather than focusing on the ultimate reform of our economic system, the authors assert that the critical first step is reform individuals so that they appreciate and value leisure.  The authors attempt to do this by describing the seven elements of the so-called good life (without an insatiable craving for material things):

  1. Health.  The full functioning of the body and a reasonable span of life.  “It implies vitality, energy, alertness and that ruddy beauty….”
  2. Security.  A justified expectation that his life will continue on its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, or major social or economic disruption.
  3. Respect.  Having ones views and interests regarding as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on.
  4. Personality.  The ability to live your life to reflect your taste, temperament, and conception of good.
  5. Harmony with nature.  A sense of kinship with animals, plants, and landscapes.
  6. Friendship.  This is something more personal than being involved in the community.
  7. Leisure

As suggested earlier in the book, leisure is the subject that the authors most want to expound on.  According to them, leisure is something different than relaxation and rest while away from work.  Paid work can be leisure if undertaken primarily not for money but for its own sake.  By contrast, running to lose weight is not leisure (not for its own sake); nor is watching TV and getting drunk (too passive).  I thought it was a great insight for the authors to point out that activities of an artisan are every bit as legitimate as leisure as are intellectual musings. 

Two quotes that describe leisure better than I can:

  • Why is leisure a basic good?  The reason is clear: a life without leisure, where everything is done for the sake of something else, is vain indeed.  It is a life always in preparation, never in actual living.  Leisure is the wellspring of higher thought and culture, for it is only when emancipated from the pressure of need that we really look at the world, ponder it in its distinct character and outline.”
  • To live wisely and agreeably and well requires not just time but application and taste.  It is ironic, if unsurprising, that the old arts of life – conversation, dancing, music-making – are atrophying just when we have most need of them.  An economy geared to maximizing marketable output will tend to produce manufactured rather than spontaneous forms of leisure.”

That last point reminds me of a friend who suggested that we were both inclined toward “planned spontaneity.”  We wanted to be spontaneous, but it was not the way we were geared.  And I have always wanted to have objectives and goals, even for leisure-time activities.  By operating (living) this way, I convert my leisure time into a never-ending self-improvement project.

The final chapter in the book is titled, “Exits from the Rat Race.”  Only then do the authors starkly reveal themselves as socialists by recommending that the rich countries of the world endeavor to provide a “basic income” to all fellow inhabitants.  Basic income means more than the amount needed to stay out of poverty, but rather should be enough to provide individuals with a genuine choice about how much to work.  It would provide them with their “needs,” but not their “wants.”  Although this proposal would be anathema to conservatives who worry that it would remove the incentive to work, the authors would be perfectly happy for individuals to decide against working because there is already more than enough production for everybody.  People would work to satisfy their “wants.” 

The authors suggest that Western Europe is already going down that path, and they believe that Great Britain, the U.S., and some Asian countries are ready to follow (and pick up the pace).  The authors also suggest that the insatiable nature of mankind should be alleviated by prohibiting most marketing/advertising.     

This is ultra-extreme thinking, but thought-provoking.  Just what I like in a book.

p.s., as I reflected further on this book’s proposal, I became concerned that the world economy may be a house of cards that could come crashing down if the insatiable consumer demand went away.  In fact, that is one of the concerns expressed by Mitt Romney in explaining why he is reluctant to endorse a national sales tax – i.e., its effect on demand.  (Incidentally, I neglected to mention in my review that the authors, in addition to severely limiting marketing, propose a national consumption tax to replace the income tax.)  I remember a few years ago when a luxury tax was blamed for partially starting a recession.  People will need to be a lot wiser than they are now before the authors’ proposals will have any viability.

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3 Comments »

  1. i say there are 5 things to balance: physical health, mental health, relationship health, spirituality health, and financial health

    q

    Comment by q — September 19, 2012 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

    • q, I think your list provides a fine foundation, but I think it is missing the concept of self-actualization, which I think was first articulated by Maslowe and his pyramid. Humans should aspire to flourish, and until I read this book, I thought of that as something intellectual or philosophical. Since reading the book, I am considering that a person can flourish as an artisan or craftsman.

      A few months ago, while at an event in Castroville, I disparaged a guy who was into restored cars, and my date correctly pointed out that that guy’s fascination with cars was just as valid as mine with riding bikes. Now I am considering that his fascination with cars is as valid as mine with philosophy.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — September 20, 2012 @ 2:52 am | Reply

  2. […] several weeks ago I blogged about a book titled How Much is Enough, which deals with the apparent failure of successful […]

    Pingback by Conspicuous consumption « Mike Kueber's Blog — December 21, 2012 @ 11:17 pm | Reply


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