How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life

  • Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
  • Other Press
  • 304 pp.

Revisiting Keynes’s predictions about greater leisure, the authors ― an economist and a philosopher ― argue that he failed to consider how our modern society conflates needs and wants.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani

“God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy,” said Ed Conard, a former partner at Bain Capital, in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. “It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.” Conard — a former colleague of Mitt Romney and the author of a recent book — wants to see more wealth concentrated at the top. “Extraordinary payoffs,” he believes, will motivate more people “who opt for stable professions” (Conard calls people who do so “art-history majors,” which I think says more about his mind-set than about those he labels) to “join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism.”

One could argue that such a world view, beyond being Scroogian, borders on absurd. Why would people who make comfortable livings sacrifice the things they love simply for more money, especially when more money won’t bring them more of the things they love? Yet, in industrialized nations, many of us live in some variant of this fashion, if perhaps not to the extreme envisioned by Conard. Figuring out why that is drives the Skidelskys, a father-and-son economist and philosopher team, in How Much Is Enough? While ultimately foundering in its attempt to chart a course from here to a more balanced life, the book is still well worth the read for its illuminating and insightful treatment of history.

The Skidelskys begin with a 1930 prediction by the economist John Maynard Keynes that, within 100 years, worker productivity would increase to the point where people’s needs would be met with less work, and working hours would drastically shrink to around 15 per week. Eighty years later, we know Keynes was correct regarding productivity. Why he was so wrong about a corresponding decrease in working hours is one of the mysteries the book seeks to solve.

With their combined expertise, the Skidelskys provide a deep historical perspective on the field of economics. Keynes, like many economic thinkers before him, considered capitalism a phase, not a perpetual state. Indeed, capitalism was viewed as a “Faustian bargain” — the acceptance of evil for the sake of progress. Economic growth simply for its own sake would have struck him as nonsensical.

Keynes’s error, the Skidelskys argue, was a failure to adequately distinguish needs from wants, or to appreciate the degree to which our modern society would conflate the two. The authors take the position that contemporary consumption patterns don’t constitute “the good life,” and they give careful consideration to what would. To get there, they use both history and philosophy as their guides, surveying attitudes toward wealth and its uses through time and across cultures, critiquing modern “happiness studies” and — in a chapter that doesn’t match the quality of the rest of the investigation  — taking dyspeptic potshots at environmentalist straw men.

Ultimately, they define “the good life” as composed of a set of unobjectionable basic goods, the most interesting of which is “leisure.” According to the Skidelskys, leisure is not idleness; it is not sitting around the house all day playing Mario Kart, spending Saturday in bed recovering from your crazy work week and resting up for the next one, or even heading out to the mall for some materialistic consumption. The authors define leisure as purposeful activity done for its own sake. Art, music, teaching, intellectual inquiry, even volunteering to do a book review ― all can be leisure if done with the proper motivation (while Ed Conard’s work at Bain probably wouldn’t qualify, his writing a book would!).

Our society would be better if people had more leisure, they argue, and it’s hard to disagree. However, the authors’ attempt to show us concrete ways to begin achieving “the good life,” in a chapter titled “Exits From the Rat Race,” is the weakest part of the book. Part of the problem is that they lump together disparate industrialized nations that have very different policies. For example, I logged more than 2,300 hours in my day job last year, and some of my colleagues clocked in closer to 3,000. Call me a godless socialist if you must, but send me to the Netherlands. A place where my working hours would be nearly halved (the average there is less than 1,300 hours per year; the U.S. average is around 1,800), my health insurance wouldn’t be tied to my employment and the social safety net hasn’t become a laughable construct being further eroded each day sounds like “the good life” to me.

This kind of disparity in living conditions from one country to another suggests another part of the problem. The Skidelskys quote the economist Harry Johnson from 1960: “We live in a rich society, which … insists on thinking and acting as if it were a poor society.” Fifty years later, that statement rings true in today’s economic and policy discussions, and it limits them. For instance, the Skidelskys propose that basic income be paid to all citizens regardless of what they do or how much they work. The United Arab Emirates provides such payments; so does Alaska (in both cases, the dividends come from natural resource extraction). The question is: In an environment in which discussions are focused on the unsustainability of Social Security and Medicare, how likely are we as a nation to take on a new entitlement?

As the Johnson quote suggests, there are fiscal obstacles, and then there are attitudinal ones. We seem obsessed in this country with ensuring that no one gets “something for nothing,” even if we all suffer as the result. In an environment in which public workers are under scrutiny for their (only relatively) secure pensions and large amounts of sick and vacation time, can we have a serious discussion about the need for more leisure? It’s a testament to the truth of Johnson’s statement that it’s the public workers who are under scrutiny, not the system that doesn’t provide pensions and paid time off for all. I think the Skidelskys are right about a lot of things, but much of what they say is so far outside the contemporary American political and economic discussion it could just as well be from another planet.

And let’s leave aside our “First World problems” for a moment and consider more broadly. Shouldn’t we be concerned about those radically less fortunate than ourselves — our own economically marginalized urban poor or those in developing nations lacking basic sanitation or enough to eat — before we devote significant resources to leisure? In a society in which people enjoy “the good life,” who does the tough or undesirable jobs? Under such a system, would strawberry pickers and McDonald’s fry cooks and hotel maids get more leisure time? Would they get it instead of the social safety net they need first? How Much Is Enough? leaves many such questions unanswered.

These shortcomings aside, by all means read this book. The historical analysis is mostly first-rate, and the jarring disconnect between the Skidelskys’ solutions and the tenor of our national discussions — like Ed Conard’s “art-history majors” label — says a lot more about us than it does about the authors or the quality of many of their ideas.

Josh Trapani is managing editor of The Independent, a volunteer position performed in his “leisure” time.


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