Friday 21 August 2015

Why we Work so Hard?

David Kestenbaum, Planet Money host, NPR:
"In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes published this famous essay called 'Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.' He's wondering what the future's going to be like, and he makes this bold kind of prediction. He imagines that in the time of his grandchildren - basically now - we might all be working just 15 hours a week." (Episode 641, July 24, 2015)
Robert Smith, co-host:
"Think about it - 15 hours a week. This would be like, OK, OK, go to work on Monday. Go to work on Tuesday, then, TGIT, five-day weekend. And Keynes didn't detail what we would do with all of this extra leisure time. But you can imagine. He was an aristocrat. He would want us to do poetry and dance, play the violin."
As Keynes had no grandchildren, the hosts asked his sister's grandchildren how did that prediction work out for them. Apparently, not very well:
"I probably worked about 15 a day … from breakfast 'til I went to bed at night."
"When you read Keynes's essay, you get the sense that he imagined capitalism was just this phase that humanity was going to pass through, that it was a great system for solving what he called the economic problem, for creating enough economic growth so that everybody's basic needs could be met. But he imagined that after that, people could relax. We would outgrow this habit of working all the time."
It may sound like blasphemy, but Keynes was wrong. How is that even possible?

The show offers two explanations. For one "Keynes underestimated how competitive we are": we voluntarily work hard, even if we don't need to, to have more than everybody else.

Alternatively, "Keynes probably didn't pay enough attention to the way we feel about work. Some people like their jobs," like "craftspeople who take great pride in their craft".


I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but as the son of a man who died getting ready to go to work (after working for years 16 hours a day, six days a week), I suspect those guys didn't try hard enough to understand why some work so hard, for my dad didn't love his work and he wasn't particularly competitive. Some people work really hard because  … they have no choice.

Note that both explanations the hosts advance assume -- implicitly and without a second thought -- that people choose to work harder/longer than they actually need.

Maybe Kestenbaum and Smith should try asking those working for Foxconn, Pegatron, and others: here and here.


But if those guys' explanations seem weak, restricted to their direct personal experiences, in something else they were spot on. Richard Freeman (Harvard economist and director of the NBER):
"I don't think he [i.e. Keynes] knew that many normal people."
Now, taking into account Keynes' opinions about the "common man", the "boorish proletariat", "those who do not know at all what they are talking about" it's easy to understand he didn't care to know many normal people. And relying -- just as the show hosts do -- in introspection and personal experience he wasn't in an ideal position to guess other people's motivations.

So, it's either that or, considering Keynes fixation on Animal Spirits (which he fully formed later, in time for "The General Theory"), he might have been trying to pre-empt the Great Depression, while having a go at the Webbs.

Who knows, maybe "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" was Keynes' first attempt at Keynesian stimulus. Appropriately Orwellian, if you think about it.


Episode 641, Planet Money, July 24, 2015:

22-08-2015. Alfred Marshall (Keynes' mentor) and missus, Mary Paley Marshall, explain in their 1879 book "The Economics of Industry" how general slumps happen (highly evocative of Hyman Minsky's work, btw) and how the economy finally recovers:
"The chief cause of the evil is a want of confidence. The greater part of it could be removed almost in an instant if confidence could return, touch all industries with her magic wand, and make them continue their production and their demand for the wares of others." (pp. 154-155)
Maybe with "Economic Possibilities" Keynes was trying to give the Confidence Fairy a hand.


  1. Thanks for this. It is hard to think of a subject that it's harder to get people to think about honestly. You've got to get past all of the ideology, and people don't even know that they are repeating crap that's coming down to them. I don't say that people are incapable of being honest about this subject, just that it is a very touchy matter. (I've linked to your thoughts at a blog I'm keeping--ostensibly for my ESP students who study Economics, but also just to give me a place to let off steam-- )

  2. Thanks for the comment and the link, FAWS.