Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Keynes on "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren"

Before delving into Livingston's book, it may be useful to locate the work within a longer tradition of economic thought that can be traced back to John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who revolutionized the field in the 1930s and 1940s. There is no single Keynesian tradition or persuasion; conservatives, moderates, and radicals can all be grouped under that banner. Though Livingston draws from a wide array of intellectual sources and traditions, it's not too much of a stretch to characterize the argument presented in Against Thrift as a contemporary statement of radical Keynesianism.

This isn't simply because Keynes figures heavily in the empirical economic arguments advanced in the book. It's because Livingston shares Keynes' utopian vision of the cultural and spiritual possibilities opened up by the last century of economic growth and development. One can best understand how Against Thrift can be situated in the radical Keynesian tradition by consulting Keynes' short but incredibly far-reaching essay on "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren."

I won't go into the details of Keynes' essay here because it's so wise and delightful that you should go and read the thing yourself. But to summarize, Keynes argued that humanity's basic economic problems would be solved within roughly one hundred years (from 1930), and that the age-old problem of scarcity would give way to the problems posed by abundance and leisure. The love of money for its own sake would be rejected as "a somewhat disgusting morbidity" while economists would be reduced to "humble, competent people on a level with dentists." Instead of worrying about whether we could feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, we'd have to worry about what we'd do with all of our free time now that robots were doing most of the socially necessary work.

In particular, Livingston shares Keynes' excitement at the possibility that self-denial and delayed gratification would pass into history, resulting in radically reshaped character types, psychologies, and modes of living.

But that's enough of my rambling for now; let's hear what you all have to say. Do you share Keynes' optimism for the future? Despite the current gloominess surrounding the economy, what economic possiblities do you envision for your lifetime and for your grandchildren?

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