Saturday, 22 December 2012

Skidelsky & Skidelsky: How Much is Enough?

Robert Skidelsky & Edward Skidelsky (2012) How Much is Enough? Money and the good life Other Press, New York; 257 pp.; eISBN 978-1-59051-508-2

Robert Skidelsky is a noted economic historian and author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. His son Edward is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Exeter. Together they re-examine Keynes’s idea of the ‘good life’. In the midst of the Great Depression, Keynes envisaged a future capitalist economy where technology and wealth meant that we would only need to work for a small amount of time to satisfy our wants and the rest of the time we could pursue other interests – the good life. You don’t have to be a genius to spot that the world we live in is not quite like that. In aggregate terms, we are extraordinarily rich compared to any time in the past, but Keynes failed to see the rapid growth of populations, the return of crushing inequality with the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1980s, and that fact that people’s wants have grown far beyond basic needs and the odd luxury to become virtually insatiable.

So does this mean we are all on a hiding to a consumerist hell? The authors are optimistic that this need not be the case and argue that the ‘good life’ is still possible. They discuss various approaches to wealth and consumption through history and across cultures and show that other ways of living are feasible. The central problem is that we are now slaves to consumption but oddly in this book there is no discussion of recent works on affluence and its role in modern capitalism. The authors’ examination of the topic doesn’t get beyond Kenneth Galbraith and Herbert Marcuse, both interesting thinkers but published decades ago.

Father and son are rightly scornful of gross domestic product as a measure of how well we live, but also reject the idea of using happiness as a measure. Happiness has been championed by both left and right in recent years – David Cameron the prime minister of Britain is a fan, and Bhutan has incorporated the idea into its national statistics. But there are good reasons why it is a poor indicator and the authors rehearse these in the book. They argue that more concrete measures are needed and it is difficult to disagree.

They also reject the idea of limits to growth, and in Chapter 5 conduct a long and rather tedious criticism of the green movement and environmental limits to growth. It is not clear why they do this as it is not central to their argument and many of the points they make have weak logical bases. They liken climate change to war or the plague, but neither of those affects the very medium in which we live. Climate change is a different order of problem. They also reject planning on the basis of uncertain climate change predictions, but all planning is based on uncertainties because we can never know the future with full accuracy. All we can do is apply analysis to what we know now, keep accumulating data and look at trends, and hypothesise from there. Some analytical methods are better than others but none will give us a certain picture of the future. Only if the issue is very narrow and our data very extensive will we get close. Few social policy problems are like that. The authors also accuse the green movement of scaremongering then use exactly the same tactic by highlighting the movement’s Nazi antecedents (via Heidegger). The chapter does them no credit at all.

It is a pity that their obsession with the green movement leads them away from an informed discussion about sustainable growth. What might that look like and how would it fit into their concept of the ‘good life’? They favour it, but never explain what it is.

In the penultimate chapter they advance four criteria for determining elements of the ‘good life’ then propose seven ‘basic goods’ that would constitute this life. As is to be expected in any general theory, the seven basic goods are expounded in very broad terms. Discussion of each of them is limited and it is likely that readers will have very diverse understandings of what they entail. One of them is friendship, but clearly the authors have not read any of the now extensive anthropological literature on this topic. It is difficult to reduce it to the approach taken here. Similarly, respect is included in the seven, but it is never clear what this would look like in practice given the way power is exercised in modern states. Towards the end of the chapter the authors provide an overview of the current status of their seven basic goods and the picture is a rather depressing one. Modern capitalist societies – the rich countries of the world – are not doing well on any of them. Is this why we are all so miserable?

Some tangible suggestions for bringing about the ‘good life’ appear in the final chapter, mainly focused on taxation and work reforms. They revive Nicholas Kaldor’s idea of a consumption tax and consider reforms such as basic income provision and work sharing. There are the germs of some thoughtful proposals but in the end nothing much is elaborated.

The book focuses very much on the role of the state and the authors favour ‘non-coercive paternalism’ to help achieve the ‘good life’. The approach owes a lot to the ideas set out in Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge (2008) though the authors do not acknowledge this. More ideas on the role of the private sector and civil organisations would have made their argument much stronger.

There are some important points in this book. One is the changing nature of modern capitalism where wealth creation is often the result of investment in financial instruments rather than in production. Investors seem to be running out of ideas for production except to export old-style manufacturing to poor countries. Another is the creation of endless wants through advertising and by isolating consumers so that their social interactions are mainly passive consumption of media or online conversations rather than meeting in person or forming groups. It is hard with increased social isolation to resist craving material goods for emotional satisfaction or to reassure ourselves of our social status. Everything is being given a money value and everything is up for sale, so it is difficult to avoid consumerist thinking. How do we address these trends in order to move to a more sustainable and satisfying way of life? The authors dabble around the edges of these issues but never tackle them head on.

It is ironic that Adam Smith, that icon of neo-liberal economists, believed that frugality was such an important part of self-interest that laws against excessive spending or wastefulness were utterly unnecessary. He failed to foresee how his modern devotees would glorify greed, waste money on things they never use and accumulate more money than they can ever spend. An Adam Smith frugality? Fab! Where can I buy one of those?

Robert Skidelsky in particular is such an eminent scholar of Keynes that I expected a more cogent argument about the ‘good life’, what it might look like in practice and how we could achieve it. Instead, this is a jumble of half-hearted analyses and disjointed proposals that are unlikely to convince the sceptical reader. Rich countries are in an economic and social mess but the way forward is not much clearer after reading this book. I would still recommend you read it because it will challenge you and provoke you to consider your own values and lifestyle. And that is not a bad thing to do over a festive season of excess.

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