I spend a lot of time reading, and almost as much time thinking about books. Sometimes I enjoy just picking them up and holding them. Every year brings another bookshelf into my life. This week, I finished a great book of popular economics called “How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life” by Robert Skidelski – economist and John Maynard Keynes biographer – and his son Edward Skidelsky. A quick aside, Robert spent thirty years writing a biography of John Maynard Keynes, which is such a long time to spend on any one task that I feel in awe.
“How Much Is Enough?” starts from Keynes’ prediction from a 1930 essay that developed countries would be about four times richer by 2030. Therefore, citizens in these countries would work only a quarter as much. Given that the average working week was 50-60 hours in 1930, this would mean a 2010 average of about 20 hours a week, assuming a linear rate of reduction. Of course, this hasn’t happened. The Skidelskys explore why.
In the early 20th century, it was common for those in well-paying positions to scale down their working hours – a doctor might work only three of fours hours a day once they had their practice, and still live very comfortably. A banker who made an early fortune would buy a nice plot of land with a manor house, hire servants, and retire to a life of leisure in his thirties. Not living extravagantly, but able to invest in living the good life, which it was recognized came at least in part from what one did rather than what one had. Correspondingly, low wages generally meant very long working hours by today’s standards just to make ends meet.
Today, note the Skidelskys, the opposite trend is in place. The wealthy often use their existing wealth to finance working as many hours as possible, organized by their by executive assistants, and enabled by labour-saving services for hire. (Progressive income tax structures can disincentivize working harder for an extravagant income by making income above a certain point of less value to its possessor, but the movement in the last few decades has been towards flatter tax structures). This ability of the wealthy to work harder and generate wealth quickly reinforces Horatio Alger narratives of working harder leading to greater wealth, when the opposite equation is functioning here: greater wealth leads to a greater capacity to work.
For those without the luxury of wealth, more jobs are temporary, casual, or part-time – with real wages levelled at or below subsistence levels. For the person who finds themselves working two or three part time job comes extra commuting time, and a more scattered schedule, leading to more unpaid time spent in service of maintaining employment and less time to spend in leisure.
The Skidelskys’ book draws an important distinction between rest and leisure, two concepts which are often conflated. Rest is time to sleep, to unwind, to watch television, whereas leisure requires an investment is closer to work – what Marxists call un-alienated labour. These activities contribute to the growth of a person and establish their relationships to other persons or to their broader community. Education, gardening, sport, art, and politics comprise some of these activities. Most of these activities can also be professionalized, but usually this specialization leads to working conditions which preclude the ability to participate in other leisure activities as a part of living a good life.
This book has my brain happily whirring and I think you might find it useful, dear reader. If the basic ideas shared above appeal to you, then by all means seek it out. This book shares its carefully considered ideas in an accessible tone, so don’t fear if you haven’t done your background reading in macro- and micro- economics.
Sundays are a great day to reheat some leftovers in your favourite pan on the stove. You’ve got a microwave, but the texturizing provided by heat applied to the outside of food – and not beamed to wherever is highest moisture content – is a pleasure you cherish. You consider giving your microwave away, but you remember the technique of blanching potatoes in a microwave before roasting or frying them. This speeds up the whole process from a once-in-a-while breakfast starch, to something you can indulge in frequently. You write down this method on a postcard to share with a friend, but leave it unaddressed on the coffee table. Below is a poem. If you’d like to put it on a postcard and send it to a friend, you have my blessing. As always, if you need to talk. I’m here. Have a great week, everybody.
86th avenue home
small and taking pictures,
knowing more pain than anything else.
small creatures grousing
all over everything
sipping at whatever
drinks we can get our hands on.
slipping and falling
into the tennis ball fuzz
on your lips.
i kiss the fire of the sun,
you push over my stack of books,
and we read shakespeare to each other.
we put a revolving laser projector
in your big closet and sat on cushions
in the middle of the floor and hugged and
of course there wasn’t enough room.
the power went out and
we sat in nothing.
the catch of certain fabrics on
the sandpaper of your neck.
a small scar on the crown of your head
underneath all of that hair.