Saturday, August 13, 2011

Purpose and consumption

One problem is we think too much in terms of consumption. This is where Keynes goes wrong in the essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren which I keep referring to as a benchmark. (see 'economic possibilities' in the labels on the right.)

On the one hand, he acknowledges the problems that can come with material satiation:

If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional
Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.
To use the language of to-day-must we not expect a general “nervous
breakdown”? We already have a little experience of what I mean -a nervous
breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women,many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations--who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.
To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed--for sweet-until
they get it.

But he also dismisses "purposiveness".

Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth-unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom.
For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Keynes thinks the answer is in essence to cultivate a higher form of consumption, a Bloomsbury aestheticism.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

This prefigures much of the focus on consumer demand in his General Theory a few years later, and much macroeconomic thinking for the following eighty years.

But people do not want to just consume. They want to produce. They want purpose and to be purposive. They want independence and self-reliance and a sense they have earned what they have.

Keynes's comments on bored housewives reads strangely now, as he wrote thirty years before the revolution in women's roles.

Some of the vast movement of women into the workforce was driven by economic necessity, especially as two incomes were increasingly needed to pay mortgages.

But I think much more was driven by boredom, a sense that even the most luxurious home in Scarsdale or Henly could be a gilded cage. Many women wanted the stimulation of participation and challenge. The movement even called itself "women's liberation."

Keynes is right that we need more cultivated consumption, and that we need to pause sometimes to enjoy the good things of life. But consumption cannot really be an end in itself.

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