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Consumption: Endless Growth is Senseless

Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes thought people would soon have everything they need and envisioned a 15-hour work week. In the midst of the worst economic crisis, he foresaw a world where people had to work much less because their needs were satisfied and they had what they needed. Keynes suggested economists should see themselves as dentists not religious guardians

How Much Prosperity is Enough?

[This interview with economic historian Robert Skidelsky and his son, the philosopher Edward Skidelsky, published on February 28, 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet,  http://www.zeit.de/2013/10/Konsum-Gespraech-Skidelsky/komplettansicht.]

DIE ZEIT: Both of you father and son wrote a book against insatiability. You say people consume more than they need. But a large part of the world is not insatiable but is not satiated.

Robert Skidelsky: This gap between great wealth and great poverty violates the sense of justice. Therefore our book is directed to the wealthy western world. Compared to other world regions, the western world has enough of what is needed for life. It could bridle its insatiability and imagine a world after capitalism.

ZEIT: What do you mean with the term "insatiability"?

Robert Skidelsky, 73, is a British economic historian. He was a professor in Warwick and gained renown with his biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Robert Skidelsky: Comparing what one owns with other people and believing one's possessions are too small is a human characteristic. Capitalism has made this the psychological wellspring of a whole civilization.

Edward Skidelsky: This overheated capitalism with its "More, more, more!" forgets what is essential. What is a good life? Therefore we ask how much is enough. We want to tame the monster capitalism by recalling basic human needs.

ZEIT: Do two worlds of ideas collide for the two of you, the father an economic historian and the son a philosopher?

Robert Skidelsky: Oh no. We are a father and a son who in an economic crisis worry about the future of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Edward Skidelsky, 39, teaches social philosophy in Exeter. His particular focus is on the ethic of capitalism.

Edward Skidelsky: Our common view of the world makes clear: the philosopher knows more what prosperity is and the economist understands better how prosperity can be generated. Economics and philosophy originally belonged together. The modern economy arose as a moral discipline.

ZEIT: But 250 years have passed since then. We cannot return to the beginning.

Edward Skidelsky: Science always goes back in its history. We also do that. The ancient philosopher Aristotle wanted to limit desires to moderation, to what people need for a good life. Aristotle is in my baggage. My father brings the great economist of the 20th century; John Maynard Keynes who thought people would soon have everything they need.

Robert Skidelsky: Our book would not have arisen without Keynes. He gave us a model. He reflected about the economic future of his grandchildren in 1930, in the midst of the worst economic crisis. He foresaw a world where people had to work much less because their basic needs were satisfied and they had what they needed. Keynes believed capitalism did not need to be abolished. Capitalism would come to rest by itself since humanity would soon be satiated and satisfied! Incidentally Keynes suggested economists should see themselves as dentists useful as experts, not as religious guardians. I agree.

ZEIT: Since 1945, economic growth has been almost a religious theme. Are you against economic growth with your plea for modesty and frugality?

Robert Skidelsky: We have nothing against growth that gives people leisure and does not continue to destroy the environment. But we regard endless growth as senseless since everyone has long been supplied with everything important.

ZEIT: Still economic growth can bring people out of unemployment. That is bitterly necessary in southern Europe. That has a meaning.

Robert Skidelsky: That has a meaning in the short term, not in the long term. In the long run, we will not be happier with this growth. We quickly accustom ourselves to every new standard of prosperity, become dissatisfied and soon demand more. Growth does not lead people to believe they are leading a meaningful life.

ZEIT: If we do not consume in vast amounts, we endanger jobs here and all over the world. Consumption is necessary to keep production going.

Edward Skidelsky: Production exists to meet consumption, not vice versa. Everything else would be an inverted world. We must raise the question differently to get out of this madness. What we really need is not for sale. Material prosperity has no meaning in itself. It is only meaningful as a presupposition or means for a good life.

ZEIT: Then we ask on principle: What do we need? What makes for a good life?

Edward Skidelsky: A life is good, we think, when seven basic needs are satisfied.
A person needs health, security, respect, developing personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure.

ZEIT: Why are these seven the basic needs?

Robert Skidelsky: Obviously a little arbitrariness is involved. We followed four criteria in our selection. Basic goods are universal and do not merely belong to a certain culture. They are final, have importance in themselves and are not means to an end. Moreover they stand for themselves and are not simply part of another good. Therefore we do not expressly emphasize family relations but subordinate them to a super-ordinate good of friendship. Fourthly, these goods are simply irreplaceable. Whoever does not have them suffers a grave deficiency. In this sense, we speak of basic needs. When we decide for these seven goods that every person needs, t his list cannot be understood categorically. It should open up a discussion.

ZEIT: Do you seriously argue that these goods are not for sale? What about the little trip to the ocean for the sake of kinship with nature or the new garden fence to be burglar-proof, not to mention the expensive dentures and the costly nurse?

Edward Skidelsky: We do not deny that money has its finger everywhere. Money can also delude one to think he has what he needs. By their nature, the basic goods we defined are not for sale.

ZEIT: Doesn't your list represent a rather European mixture of basic needs and goods?

Robert Skidelsky: No. These basic needs are found in all the cultures of the world.

Edward Skidelsky: What some call respect others call recognition or acknowledgment. In some cultures, respect means more equality and in others less equality. But the same thing is meant.

ZEIT: From where comes your intuition of knowing what people need?

Robert Skidelsky: Historical knowledge can help us recognize what is important and liberates from the tyranny of the present. Philosophical knowledge also helps. People raise ever recurring questions. This history of ideas does not give rise to the new but is overabundant in the old. The brief breakneck history of the modern age devours too much of that.

ZEIT: 2000 years ago Epicurus declared nothing is enough for a person who always has too little. What is so capitalist about insatiability?

Edward Skidelsky: Greed is as old as humanity but greed was almost always outlawed. Todayit is not morally limited by anything. Greed has become a legitimate habit. We want to join the old idea of moderation with modern instruments.

ZEIT: What instruments do you mean?

Robert Skidelsky: We urge a greater taxation on assets and financial transactions, for a general legal restriction of working hours, for a tax-financed basic income and for limitations on advertising. We do not want to go back to the antique arcades. A sentimental misunderstanding of the good life should be avoided. The politics that we envision is completely modern but the ideas nourishing this politics are old.

Edward Skidelsky: One idea is the idea of leisure that we have forgotten with all our work.

ZEIT: Why are you for a basic income?

Robert Skidelsky: Paid work and the labor market should not dominate our life. We propose citizen money so everyone can freely decide how much he/she wants to work, not a minimum income dependent on the labor market.

ZEIT: Work is not as boring or humdrum as enjoying ourselves, the poet Charles Baudelaire said. Maybe we only don't want to be bored?

Robert Skidelsky: Obviously we work to be recognized as social beings. But the capitalist world of work has fallen out of joint. Limiting politically the number of working hours and relearning leisure seem important to us. In this way the spectrum of human abilities could finally be enjoyed, the talents for friendship and art, education and sport, political activity as citizens, life with nature and caring for one another. Leisure, not laziness is vital! The state has the task of ensuring that we can choose and cultivate such a life. Keynes thought the state makes possible civilization. I agree.

ZEIT: Should all this be initiated with the approval of citizens or through pressure?

Edward Skidelsky: A state always has an influence on its citizens through the road construction that invites to car driving and through local public transportation making it easier to leave the car idle. This is not pressure but is paternalist. We support such a paternalism that manages without pressure but sets intelligent incentives through taxes and state subsidies enabling citizens to decide how they will use their time and their money.

ZEIT: Both of you are now working many hours. How is it with your own good life?

Edward Skidelsky: I am rather close to the good life. I teach philosophy but only a few hours a week. This obviously requires time for preparation though enough leisure remains for me. I do not have much money but time for reading and reflecting, for family and friends.

Robert Skidelsky: I think my son lives a better life than me. I work too much, do too many things and am underway in many projects. I am not satisfied because I'd like to do many things and my lifetime is slowly becoming limited.

Edward Skidelsky: There is a story about Charles de Gaulle who when asked whether he was happy said "I am not an idiot." A little dissatisfaction was implicit there.

ZEIT: A basic idea is not that all wishes be fulfilled. No one is satisfied in being desirelessly happy.

Edward Skidelsky: Agreed.

Robert Skidelsky: The experience of fulfilled hours without thought of practical value and pressures is a basic need. When Edward and I wrote this book together for a few months in France, we were very close to the good life.

ZEIT: Wasn't that more luxury than the good life - taking a day off, paying for the journey and doing without the monthly salary?

Robert Skidelsky: Many could afford taking a time out and leading a simply country life that fulfills the need for leisure and doesn't only serve wellness and avert free time stress. That is not a luxury. But most prefer free time stress.

ZEIT: What will the economic future of your grandchildren look like, as Keynes asked in 1930?

Edward Skidelsky: We cannot make any certain predictions. The hope of many people today that their grandchildren will be materially better off stands on shaky ground. But isn't the good life better than a life that is only materially increasingly rich?


Interview with the philosopher Edward Skidelsky and his father Robert Skidelsky

[The philosopher Edward Skidelsky and his father Robert Skidelsky wrote about the good life. This interview published in: Berliner Zeitung journal is translated from the German on the Internet,  link to www.berliner-zeitung.de.]

How can wild capitalism be tamed? Robert and Edward Skidelsky - father and son, economist and philosopher - had a few suggestions. A conversation about insatiability, the economy without morality and the question what constitutes a good life.

Robert Skidelsky is a distinguished older gentleman, always courteous, extremely correct and professionally charming. However Skidelsky runs aground before the general public. At a literary festival in Koln, the acclaimed English economist together with his son, the philosopher Edward Skidelsky, entertained a crowded theater for a whole evening. Their theme was the economy is not predestined for airheads, folly and nonsense (the German word is Schenkelkopfer). Skidelsky's polished Oxford-English sounds aristocratic to German ears. This may be true for the father. Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords. The 73-year old honors his Russian ancestors when he puts on his fur hat and white scarf. His son Edward has the style of the casual academic...

Your book "How Much is Enough?" is a collaborative work of father and son, economist and philosopher. They begin with a pedagogical trick and raise the question that is also the title of their book. I wanted to hear their answer.

Edward Skidelsky: We intentionally do not name any amounts of money. That would be dishonest and would bring us immediately into endless pointless discussions with everyone. We define the "good life" according to the extent that certain goods are available for us. This depends on the generation, the personal life situation and political and social conditions.

However a number is given in a footnote of your book. In our latitudes, a good life is possible with 40,000 to 50,000 Euros per year, you say.

Lord Robert Skidelsky: Our reflections are based on a little essay by John Maynard Keynes from 1930 "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren." In that essay, Keynes said four- to five times the average income at that time would be enough for a good life. I projected that for our conditions and came to 40,000 to 50,000 Euros. Obviously we have higher standards today. However we would be close to Keynes' ideal of the good life with less work and more leisure. That was the purpose of my little mental game.

Keynes wrote more than 80 years ago that the material needs of people could be satisfied in the foreseeable future and the unrelenting striving for more and more would grind to a halt. That sounds completely unrealistic. Did Keynes really believe in this possibility?

R.S. Most deeply! All his thinking was focused on that. Therefore he emphasized full employment. For him, the worldwide economic crisis at the end of the 1920s was an enormous waste of resources that could have been avoided with the necessary sensitiveness of politics and the right economic theories. He could have said that again in 2008.

Why did he fail so spectacularly with his predictions?

E.S. He failed for two reasons. The first has to do with human nature and individual motives of action. Keynes thought human needs were finite. Some time or other we would be satisfied with what we have. Obviously that is not true. All our needs are relative. We always compare ourselves with our neighbors and strive for what others have that we do not have.

What is the second reason?

E.S. The capitalist system condemns us to the race for more and more. Capitalism pours oil onto the fire of human longing. Politics has abandoned all attempts at controlling market forces.

R.S. Keynes' concept of the satiation of our needs has no place there. The capitalist system produces ever new desires and always stimulates status competition.

E.S. We see this best in advertising. We start with the insatiability of desire.

R.S. Although we have long had enough, we should run on and on in the hamster wheel because other economies could overtake us in the international competition and we may not survive "the Asian century." Our politicians have no other goal for the economy than "Growth, growth and growth." A greedy plutocracy in the West cashes in and glosses over its predatory attacks with the idyllic terms of freedom and globalization. Hardly anyone says that this whole system decays morally from within.

E.S. Economists only need to reflect on their root: moral philosophy. Adam Smith, the founder of the modern economy, was originally a philosopher. Keynes was also a philosopher before he turned to economics. The paradigm of a moral free economics is relatively new.

R.S. We were sick and tired of the amorality of contemporary economic thinking that fades out the goal and purpose of money-making. The assumption seems to be that people are more satisfied the more they consume. This is obviously complete nonsense. Everyone knows this. Thus moral standards are necessary for measuring the economy instead of accepting the crude logic of efficiency without questioning.

Interestingly there are a whole series of recent reanimation attempts at an "economy of good and evil" to quote the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek's bestseller. Like Sedlacek, you work with great narratives and myths of the history of the human race. The Faust legend is one example. Why is this?

R.S. That was a fascinating idea for us. Capitalism is the pact of economists with the devil. The devil promises wealth but also demands his price. That is the climax of the Faustian pact. The same time happens to economists. They open up space to capitalism - for the best interests of society they imagine. Capitalism should multiply the general prosperity. That succeeded in our latitudes. But then the economists thought they could say - like Faust to the devil: "You have done your job. Now march backwards into hell! And we will come to heaven." But the devil cannot be chased away so easily. With capitalism, we created a kind of Frankenstein monster that runs and runs and runs. We don't know why or where. In the depths of our hearts, we know this cannot go well. Things cannot go on like this.

E.S. Keynes expressed this very nicely. For the next hundred years we had to act according to the principle that Shakespeare in "Macbeth" put in the witch's mouth: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" - good is evil and evil is good. We have internalized this interplay so much we cannot really say what is really "good."

R.S. When we see all the billionaires today, the super-rich bankers, they are all Frankensteins in their way. They regard themselves as infallible. They believe they are incredibly active in value-creation which is simply not true. In truth, they are greedy sharks; many of them are also swindlers. We revere them like gods. But they are false gods - morally, economically and politically.

Bashing oligarchs and bankers is easy. But aren't we all little Frankensteins according to our standards?

R.S. Why? Are you a Frankenstein?

Oh yes when I think of my vacation plans or my consumer conduct - then I am not so un-Frankenstein.

R.S. I can reassure you: You are not Frankenstein!

Why not?

E.S. The question about the "good life" cannot be raised purely individually. We must tackle it collectively.

R.S. Seen as a whole we could be capable of a good life. We don't have to constantly envy or cheat others because we actually have enough. Still we have to come to an ethical understanding of a good life. Otherwise everything has no meaning.

What are the elements of a good life?

E.S. We identified a broad agreement in the theories of good life in all times and cultures and derived seven "base goods" from this. This could be called the "distilled wisdom" that characterizes a "good life."

What is this "distilled wisdom"?

E.S. The seven are health, security, respect, personal autonomy, friendship, harmony with nature and leisure. The terms are not crucial. You could find others.

R.S. With friendship, for example, we mean the whole breadth of emotional relations. You could call it "love." That would also be right. But friendship seems the more appropriate term to us.

E.S. Our personal predilections should not determine the base goods. Obviously there are cultural and individual preferences in the relations of base goods and within every base good. For example, the family has a much higher ranking in some societies than in others.

You refer explicitly to Aristotle and the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages. The term "highest good" played a crucial role for scholasticism. Is there a hierarchy of goods for you?

R.S. I don't think so. What do you think, Edward?

E.S. There have been many attempts in philosophy to define a highest good. That is too narrow to us. We support a plural concept within which the democratic society and the individual can weigh goods.

R.S. None of the base goods can be completely eliminated. All of them must be present somehow for a good life. Then there can be accents and priorities set by each of us.

What about the state?

R.S. The state must ensure that its citizens have the greatest possible chances for a good life. The state must set incentives. We want a friendly paternalism, a strong state as a strong actor. The disciples of the market see the state in a purely passive function as a guarantor of the free unfolding of the market. They would like to be completely free of the state as a social actor. But that is nonsense. There is no dichotomy of the state and the individual. Rather the state should protect the development of the individual.

E.S. The idea of the neutral state is nothing but a myth of liberal philosophers and economists. The supposedly neutral state surrenders its power - and leaves it to capitalists who can do what they want.

How strong may be the pressure of the state? Must the state force citizens to the good life if necessary?

E.S. Autonomy is a base good. That alone excludes the use of coercion by the state because otherwise it destroys what it should preserve.

R.S. The state should encourage rather than prohibit. Take the division of labor as an example. The most logical consequence of progressive automation is that much work is made redundant and structural unemployment is intensified peu a peu. The state could give incentives to share work and reduce working hours through its tax laws so some employees do not work 40 hours and more while others have no work.

You make a series of other concrete proposals: unconditional taxable basic income, legal limitation of working hours, a financial transactions- and property tax, luxury taxes and limitations on advertising. The Left party in Germany (DIE LINKE) would be very happy with that package.

R.S. We may not be taken in by the myths of political discourse. State control and regulation exist everywhere. Our proposals do not represent a system-change. There are already advertising prohibitions and restrictions today. The liberal myth acts as though advertising had a purely informative value. In truth, advertising guides our needs - always for more and more consumption. We want to resist this, for example with financing concepts for television that makes broadcasters less dependent on advertisements.

Gaining approval on advertising may be comparatively easy for you. That may be different with the unconditional basic income.

E.S. A basic income is only sensible in a wealthy society. The basic income is an instrument making possible electoral freedom when a certain standard is reached. A minority of society always had choices. From time immemorial, rich heirs could always choose where they wanted to work. We could expand this possibility. We call this a democratic good life in contrast to a good life of a few. What is at stake is the freedom of choice. Is that a conceivable liberal approach or not?

R.S. One main objection against the basic income is that it would make people lazy and encourage them to work less. But that is exactly the reason why we recommend it.

On what plane should your proposals be realized?

R.S. International initiatives are necessary for some projects. For example, one state cannot introduce a guaranteed basic income single-handedly or with freedom of movement on the international labor market. A division between citizens who receive a basic income and immigrants who do not receive this would occur immediately. A society can hardly endure this tension.

E.S. Our proposals are not a political program for the next Bundestag or parliamentary elections. They are part of a long-term development - along the central theme of a good life.

You speak of central themes. Why are you content with a good life instead of defining the happy life as the goal - like the whole antique philosophy? What do you have against happiness?

E.S. Some growth critics insist increasing the prosperity of a society in no way goes along with increasing well-being. While that is true, replacing prosperity maximization with happiness maximization would be wrong. Happiness cannot be measured even if pollsters suggest this with their opinion surveys. "How happy are you with your life - on a scale of one to ten?" This is really a meaningless question! Happiness is a much too complex phenomenon. Even if we could measure happiness, we should not simply raise it to the aim in life. The value of my happiness depends on why I am happy. In certain situations, not being happy is better. Thus happiness is not a good in itself. Happiness is only something good when one has a good reason for this.

How do your reflections fit into the current debates about managing the EU financial and economic crisis?

R.S. I have the feeling Angela Merkel wants to proclaim a new age of austerity and scarcity. She says yes, the EU countries in the Mediterranean area had rashly settled down. They really could not afford their lifestyle. At the end the Germans always had to pay the bill. Why should they pay? This sounds understandable and reasonable - from the view of a country that was and is successful in a certain area: the development of economic prosperity. When you see things that way, you fall into a conflict that can hardly be solved. The austerity conditions that countries like Greece, Cyprus and Italy must fulfill to be on eye level with Germany are enormous. These countries will break out of this.

Do you see t6he EU breaking up?

R.S. Possibly, very possibly - if what I and others propose: the harmonization and integration of European economic- and social policy is refused. In the old imperial system, the rulers could tax and discipline their subjects. However Germany cannot tax Greece. All Germany can do is spread out the bailout umbrella but not forevermore. When you depend completely on my bailout measures, you are subject to me and are my slave.

How did your common book project come about? The co-authorship of father and son is not unproblematic. I only need to recall my schooldays.

E.S. Writing with one's father sounds like hell or insurmountable inferiority complexes. Still we really had fun. We worked at eye level - with little differences of opinion.

R.S. The writing itself was a part of the good life since we withdrew into the Languedoc countryside. There were enough pauses for good life on our intellectual odyssey. We have different work styles. Edward is more the perfectionist who wants a final draft before he lets anyone read it. I like to begin with a rough draft. Edward polished the draft and the book took form.

E.S. Since you mention your schooldays, I repeat what my father did with my school essays at that time: he corrected them with a red pencil and eliminated passages.

People brood over the good life in southern France.

R.S. Yes, yes I see you smile condescendingly at us and say: You have it easy with red wine and good food. "Oh yes, friendship is totally important! Come, we will make it into a base good. Then cheers to your good health!"

Beyond this, doesn't your concept of the good life have something elitist - harmony with nature, leisure and so forth? 800 million people in the world suffer hunger. They would be thankful if you heard them.

E.S. The principles of good life were actually originally intended for an elite because only a minority could afford them. Now they are capable of obtaining a majority. By their nature, base goods are not elitist. Some of them have a material foundation. The good of health cannot be realized without access to doctors and medical supplies which is denied to the poor in many societies. You can realize other goods like friendship when you have little money.

R.S. Admittedly you need time for cultivating friendship. This depends on the living standard reached in a society.

E.S. It is all a question of the just distribution of the prosperity cake.

R.S. In the recent past we experienced that a minority stows away the largest piece of this cake.

Do you believe the natural human appetite can be controlled? Do you really think it is possible that we can live modestly?

E.S. We do not speak of denial. No one should lose what he/she has already attained. That would not even be politically possible. What is involved is limiting needs that are already satisfied.

R.S. I will not hide the fact that realization of our concept will meet enormous resistance. The interests of the capitalism profiteers are powerful. There is the tendency of people to stick to their customary course. Therefore the process can only be cautious. When it is cautious, the danger of regression grows.

E.S. A little imagination is necessary. One of the main reasons why we are so dependent on work is the fear of leisure and idleness. "For heaven's sake, what should I do with all the free time?!" Creativity, the ability to shape the gained time, increases in the moment when people actually work less. For example, the slow food movement is a great project. People take more time to cook and eat.

That sounds almost like Languedoc! Where do you see yourself personally on the scale of the good life? You work more than the 25 or 30 hours that you envision as the ideal amount.

R.S. Work and leisure can easily get people flustered. Edward and I certainly work more than 30 hours a week but this is for fun, not because we must. I myself do not have to work for money. I do things that make me happy. In this sense, I lead a good life. I live somewhat securely with stable health. I spend enough time with people I live. I do not live in a special harmony with nature. Edward would set the accents differently.

E.S. As a university instructor, I have ten instructional hours a week. Beyond that, I can arrange my time rather freely. I actually work 40 hours and more. But I don't work under pressure or coercion. That is the point.

You are in a privileged position, Lord Skidelsky. Der Spiegel once called you Keynes' representative on earth. When you look ahead a hundred years - as Keynes did in 1930 - what will become of your idea of the good life in 2113?

E.S. I am Keynes' son, not Keynes' representative.

R.S. You are Aristotle's representative on earth!

E.S. I believe the most important thing will be the freedom that we live according to our own ideas and do not have to live slavishly according to the ideas of others.

R.S. Agreed! Therefore we must correct what went wrong in the last hundred years in the coming hundred years.

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