Keynes assumed that people work in order to earn enough to buy what they need. And so, he reasoned, as incomes rose, those needs could be fulfilled in ever fewer hours. Workers would knock off earlier and earlier, until eventually they’d be going home by lunchtime.I sense that Pope Francis is in that last group. He's a bit of a work proponent.
But that isn’t what people are like. Instead of quitting early, they find new things to need. Many of the new things they’ve found weren’t even around when Keynes was writing—laptops, microwaves, Xboxes, smartphones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, Prada totes, True Religion jeans, battery-powered meat thermometers, those gizmos you stick in the freezer and then into your beer to keep it cold as you drink it.
“Most types of material consumption are strongly habit-forming,”... By Becker and Rayo’s account, this insatiability is hardwired into us. Human beings evolved “so that they have reference points that adjust upwards as their circumstances improve.”
Joseph Stiglitz, of Columbia University, by contrast, takes a constructivist approach. People’s choices, he argues, are molded by society and, over time, become self-reinforcing. We “learn how to consume by consuming,” he writes, and how to “enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.”
In support of this position, Stiglitz cites the contrasting experiences of Europeans and Americans. In the nineteen-seventies, the British, the French, and the Germans—though notably not the Italians—put in just as many hours at work as Americans. But then, à la Keynes, the Europeans began trading income for leisure. The average employed American now works roughly a 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.) Stiglitz predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff. TVs, he notes, “can be put in every room and in both the front and the back of automobiles.”
A third group of economists challenges the Keynesian presumption that leisure is preferable to labor. Work may not set us free, but it lends meaning to our days, and without it we’d be lost. In the view of Edward Phelps, of Columbia University, a career provides “most, if not all, of the attainable self-realization in modern societies.” Richard Freeman, of Harvard, is, if possible, more emphatic. “Hard work is the only way forward,” he writes. “There is so much to learn and produce and improve that we should not spend more than a dribble of time living as if we were in Eden. Grandchildren, keep trucking.”
In the future, Keynes imagined, the fruits of capitalism would redeem capitalism. “All kinds of social customs and economic practices . . . 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, we shall then be free, at last, to discard,” he wrote.
It is, to say the least, disappointing that things haven’t turned out that way—that inequality has grown, that leisure is scarce, that even the rich complain of being overwhelmed. And yet so much of what we do, collectively and individually, suggests that we still believe more wealth is the answer. Reëxamining this belief would probably be a good idea—that is, if anyone had the time for it.