Russ Roberts

Robert Skidelsky on Money, the Good Life, and How Much is Enough

EconTalk Episode with Robert Skidelsky
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Robert Skidelsky, noted biographer of John Maynard Keynes and author (with his son Edward) of the recently published How Much is Enough, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about materialism, growth, insatiability, and the good life. Skidelsky argues that we work too hard and too long. He argues that the good life has more leisure than we currently consume and that public policy should be structured to discourage work in wealthy countries where work can still be uninspiring. Skidelsky criticizes the discipline of economics and economists for contributing to an obsession with growth to the detriment of what he says are more meaningful and life-enhancing policy goals.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: September 20, 2012.] Russ: Guest is Robert Skidelsky, author of many books, including much-celebrated biography of John Maynard Keynes. Latest book, co-authored with son Edward Skidelsky, is How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, subject of today's program. You start your book with a discussion of an essay of John Maynard Keynes's, quite a provocative and fascinating essay, which is titled "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren." It was written in 1930, or published in 1930. And it was Keynes's vision for the future. What was that vision? Guest: Well, I think basically the vision was that when societies became sufficiently rich, they would ease off on work. And he wrote, as you said, in 1930--he thought that by now the average standard of living in most societies in the West would be about 4 or 5 times higher than in 1930. Machines would to a large extent have replaced human labor. So, we could have achieved this higher standard of working, living, with a fraction of the work we then did. And so he actually thought that by now, most of us would only be working about 15-20 hours a week. And that would be enough, as he put it, to satisfy the old [?]--leisure would replace work as the central activity of the human race. And that was his vision. Russ: He was on to something. He was right about some of that. Guest: He was right about some of that. In fact, we have got a lot richer, uh, collectively, um, than we were in 1930. We're almost in the era of our grandchildren. But the interesting thing is that work hasn't declined nearly as much as he thought it would. And the average hours of work, which were 50 hours of so in the 1930s, still are about 40 hours. And recently they've even been going up a bit, in some countries like the United States. And the paradox is that the rich are among the hardest workers. The idea of the idle rich has been replaced by the idea of the workaholic rich. Russ: One of the challenges with the data on this question is we might prefer to look at lifetime hours. So, it could be that the rich work very hard in the early and middle part of their life, but maybe--maybe--they retire earlier. That is one speculation. Guest: Mmmh, mmhm. Yeah, if you take the average, the length of life as a whole, there is obviously more leisure in a life than their used to be, because of simply the fact that people live longer. But then you ask yourself: Is it really rational to sort of pack in leisure period of people's lives into their last 15 or 20 years, when they are less able--and that's just through normal wear and tear--less able to develop alternative ways of life, develop interests, which take time, to mature? Why not spread that leisure more evenly, throughout a life? I mean, that would be more rational, I would have thought. Russ: You would think so. Guest: Why work very, very hard for 30 or 40 years and then sort of almost do nothing in the last 20 years? Russ: I think the standard economist's argument--which, I agree with you, may not be the rational argument but it has some rationality to it, of course--is that when your productivity is highest and your reward is highest, that's when you want to switch your work effort. But as you put it, if your leisure is lousy, that's not a very good deal by the time you come to consume it. Guest: Yeah. And really: How much productivity and harm should societies be organized for? The basic assumption of Keynes is that we actually could afford, as we got richer, to be less efficient. Because productivity is designed to increase economic growth. I mean, output per person rises and rises and rises. And that's been the aim, to increase productivity. But if the aim is as we suggest--to lead a good life--then productivity, concentration of productivity, becomes less important. Less vital. I'm not saying we should deliberately try to be as inefficient as possible. But we shouldn't strive in that direction to the extent we do. Russ: There's an interesting part of that essay where he critiques--I'm going to go off the subject of your book for a second because I want to ask the biographer of Keynes this question: He critiques in that essay an obsession with purposiveness, of goal-setting, of always looking to the future. And he admits that compound interest over time will allow us this freedom, but in the meanwhile we are going to be in this world where rewards, the delay of gratification, the investments which allow us to consume more down the road which will eventually liberate us; but in the middle of that, he is very critical of saving. Guest: Yeah. Russ: And he is actually very critical of Jews. There's a strange passage in there where he critiques the race--speaking I assume of the Jews--who introduced immortality into the world; and also he conflates that with a love of money. And I've always wondered whether his dislike of saving, in his economic models came somewhere from this feeling that saving wasn't a healthy thing. That living for today was, in and of itself a good thing. Which is what--he is critiquing those who want to live for tomorrow in that. You want to react to that? What are your thoughts? Guest: I think he was conflicted. I think he recognized intellectually, in order for capital accumulation to go on, you have to have a high savings rate. But then, he didn't like saving. He didn't like postponement and always looking to the future as a moral and psychological quality. He admitted it was necessary but he hoped that it would give way as quickly as one possibly could to enjoyment, and getting enjoyment from the present rather than always thinking about the future. I think on the subject of Jews and avarice, it was very much a conventional view at the time. Russ: That's right. Guest: And he wasn't really dogmatic about it. Because someone pointed out when that essay was written--in fact, it was a Jewish professor from California, I think, who said: Look, you've got all this wrong: Jews rather have been conspicuous--here's another conventional view--for extravagant display rather than for saving. And Keynes immediately wrote back and said: You are probably right, and I was thinking on conventional lines; but still I think there's something in the idea that the postponement of satisfaction and saving is something to do with the Judaic-Christian religion. Russ: No doubt about it. Guest: It's an aspect of Puritanism. Russ: Yep. Guest: And so I think that's the way he dealt with it. I think now, of course, one would never use that language. Russ: And, you say, it comes from the Judaic-Christian tradition. This whole idea of purposiveness, of having a purpose in your life that you should be striving for rather than enjoying the moment is clearly a religious idea. And I want to come back to that later. Guest: I just wanted to add to what you said: Remember the Bible, when God expelled Adam from Paradise--with terrible words: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread until thou return into the ground. You see the abundance of Paradise was never to be regained until the afterlife-- Russ: Yep. Guest: --and one's to on Earth was to sweat, to work by the sweat of thy face. Russ: Yep, that's exactly right.
9:16Russ: Now, you talk at the beginning of the book why Keynes's--there are many possible explanations, of course--but let's talk about some of them. Why is it that we don't work 50 hours a week? Many of us do. Some do. Involuntarily. But in general, when the economy is healthy people do work 30 to 40 to 50 hours a week. They don't take that wealth, that productivity, and convert it into leisure. They want stuff. Why did that happen? How was Keynes wrong? What did he predict? Guest: Well, I think it's a very interesting question, very complex; a number of answers. I think one of them was that he thought of wealth much more in quantitative terms. You could only have so many houses, so many cars, so many pairs of shoes, clothes, and so on; and once you'd got there, there was something called diminishing marginal utility, as economists call it. Less satisfaction from each additional pair of shoes, pair of socks and so on. And what that underestimated was the continued improvement in the quality of goods. Russ: Yep. Guest: An improvement that constantly tempts us to acquire the next generation of appliances of all kinds. I'm a bit of a sucker for that. I still think that my iPad 4 is going to be better than my iPad 3. And things like that. So, I think there is an increased inequality [?], which means that in a way you never have enough. Because the next generation always promises more. But I don't think one should concede too much on that head because many technological improvements are quite trivial. And I don't think would count as net improvements at all, if you took into account the extra hassle of the work required to master them. So, I think that's one aspect. I think there are others. I could go on to the more important one, which is I think that he underestimated human insatiability. We always seem to want more, something different than we have got, no matter how much there is; and that's irrespective of improvement. Russ: And I just want to add--and this is going to be a theme that's going to run through this conversation, inevitably--this idea of insatiability. And it is, as you point out in the book, a very standard feature of economic theory: More is better. More is always better in most modern economics. Guest: And more is always better because after a certain level, our wants are relative, not absolute. We are always comparing our fortunes with others. Russ: We also compare them to our own youth. It's not just that we compare them to others. We also look back on when we were younger and we want more relative to then. Guest: I think so. We compare them with the past. We also either don't have as much as the next guy, and we compare, or we want to keep having more. Because we are snobs. That's very deep in human nature. And it's not just that. I don't know if you know of an economist called Tibor Skitovsky? Russ: Sure. Guest: He wrote a book in the 1970s called The Joyless of Society. And he also brought out this point of restlessness, an innate boredom or restlessness that we have, which also is the same thing as dissatisfaction. It's not quite the same as insatiability, but feeds into insatiability. Russ: It's the same problem we have with distraction. We don't like doing nothing for a while. You can put an attractive face on these issues and say we are strivers, we are always seeking to better ourselves. Which makes it sound good. Or you could make it sound not so good. Which is your main theme, really. So, what's wrong with it? A lot of people think this is good. Guest: Well, I think it means that you never get off the treadmill. But then on the other hand it's insane to stay on the treadmill. There's another aspect to insatiability, in fact the great American economist Veblen, pointed out this quality of conspicuous consumption. And it's very interesting. With Veblen, consumption, conspicuous consumption, was the mark that you didn't have to work. It was a mark of leisure. Whereas what's happened in recent times is that it's become the product of work. You work harder and harder in order to have more conspicuous consumption. And so the character of conspicuous consumption has changed. That came up very much in the review of our book--a rather critical review of our book--by Richard Posner in the NY Times, where he said: We can't really enjoy leisure without more and more gadgets. And so we have to work harder and harder in order to acquire these gadgets. Whereas this is actually contrary to the spirit of Veblen. He thought that a certain point you would have enough stuff in order to consume conspicuously and you wouldn't have to work any more. Russ: A man who says that we need to work more and more to earn more money to buy the gadgets to enjoy our leisure is a man who has never sung in harmony with his fellow man or woman. Guest: Well, I don't disagree. Russ: There are many joys. Guest: I think there's a lot to be said; yeah, I completely agree. Well, it was a peculiar review, but I thought it was representative of a certain strand of American opinion; he's very conservative, Richard Posner. He's very distinguished but very conservative. And it just seemed to me that--well, it's just one view. He also said in that review: If people have too much leisure they'd spend all their time fighting, brawling, swearing, not getting up in the mornings. So, it's a very peculiar, particular view of human nature. Russ: That's dark. On his behalf--I've not read the review; I try not to read reviews of books where I'm interviewing the author until later--but on his good side for your purposes, he became a big fan of Keynes after the crisis and wrote a very adulatory essay of his conversion to Keynesianism. Which I challenged him on this program with a while back. But that's another story. Let's get back to your book. Guest: I'm looking for the next conversion. Russ: He needs to come fully over, I guess. But I do think--you are right. It is a dark view of human nature. Some would say it's a realistic view, and that's part of what this debate is about: What are we fundamentally about? What are we capable of? Do we need to work all the time to keep us off the streets? That seems to be the implication. Guest: It goes all the way back to the 18th century and even earlier. If we didn't have to work, we'd be idle and dissipated and go to pieces. Work is the only thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow. It's a very old view. But what about the so-called leisure classes of the past? Shouldn't they have worked? No one thought that the nobles and gentry should work more than they did. In fact, it was a mark of a certain level of civilization that you didn't have to work. Russ: Correct. Well, they had good genes, they thought. They were better. They were something else. Guest: Yeah. That sort of thing. Russ: We got off the track a little bit. Let's go back to insatiability. If we think of this as a sort of modern economic theory--modern meaning going back 100 years or so, where people are "maximizing utility," trying to get the maximum satisfaction from life through the use of goods, this is to say one strand of neoclassical economics. It's not the only strand within that field, but it can become a sort of standalone view of humanity and rationality. And you reject that. In fact, you indict it as part of the problem. Why? Guest: I think it's interpretation. In principle--well, there's two things wrong with it. First of all, it's very individualistic--it's your own utility you are trying to maximize. There's an assumption that if people maximize their own utilities that this will add up to the maximum utility for the whole society. And that assumption I don't think works at all. The adding up problem is too great. But second, of course maximizing your own utility needn't be maximizing goods. It's maximizing whatever gives you utility, and that could be leisure, for example. Russ: For sure. Guest: But the way they've interpreted it is actually--they've interpreted it as maximizing your consumption of goods, goods produced by the market. I think that's the way that maximizing utility is generally interpreted by common economists. Because it links up with growth, and that strand. So, I think utilitarianism is wrong, but I also think that economists pay lip service to the idea that they are not against anything that you want to maximize, and if you want to maximize leisure, that's fine. But their whole emphasis on efficiency and growth really biases them towards a certain interpretation of the goals of human striving. Which is making more and more money. Russ: Yeah. I don't know if that's a fair criticism or not. It's certainly a fair criticism of how some of economics has been interpreted. I like to say economics is the study of how to get the most out of life. You can debate what I mean by that exactly, but there's certainly a huge difference. Guest: But it's how to get the most out of least. Russ: To some extent. Guest: You are always doing a calculation. You are trading off. Russ: Well, that's true. Guest: You are trading off work with leisure. So there's always an element of calculation in what you are trying to do; and that's part of their view of human beings. And that is not the same as the idea Keynes looked for: we shouldn't be counting the costs. There's a passage in "Economic Possibilities" where he said: We shouldn't be counting the cost of things, in the way we do now. And when we have enough, then to lead a good life, then we needn't count the cost any more. And that does seem to me where he breaks from the economics tradition, and looks for a world without economics, essentially. In the end he says: I hope economists will become as useful citizens as dentists. Which is, you know, they are useful for breakdown services. But their view: they shouldn't be a dominant position. And yet that's very different from what's true today. I mean, economists are the high priests of our civilization.
21:28Russ: So, you are certainly right that this acquisitiveness idea, this idea of efficiency, of maximizing, is a modern idea; but it wasn't always the economic tradition. Certainly Adam Smith was an eloquent proponent of the idea that the goal of life is not to maximize how much stuff you have; that there are non-mathematical aspects of life, non-maximizing parts of life. And I also agree with you that we have become strongly interested in growth, as a policy. Whether that's economists' fault or politicians' fault, or our fault as voters. But we do like growth. And you critique that. You are very critical of that policy urge. And you start though, very interestingly, with two other critiques. The happiness literature and the environmental literature. So, start, and tell us about what you like and don't like about their critiques of growth. Let's start with the happiness literature. Guest: I will. But I think this point about acquisitiveness and Adam Smith--of course Adam Smith didn't think that acquisitiveness was the be all and end all of life. But he did regard it as the method. Acquisitiveness as a method for getting from poverty to wealth. And so in a way his ideas unleashed acquisitiveness from their traditional moral restraints. And the question, which he never answers, in my view, is how do you then rein in the Frankenstein's monster that you've created? That's a big problem, I think. We try to, we discuss it in part of our book. Acquisitiveness is the method, and now what do you do when you've got there, so to speak, to where--how do you then abolish acquisitiveness? You've let it loose. On happiness, yes, I think we felt, both of us as co-authors, that happiness, the ideal of happiness, making happiness the goal of life is very vacuous. We thought rather that happiness is a subjective state of feeling. And if what you want to do is maximize this subjective state of feeling--being happy--then I think all you have to do is invent a psychic aspirin that makes you happy the whole time. I think drug dealers sort of promise something like that as well. But you wouldn't want to say about someone made perpetually happy by being drugged or taking pills that that person is leading a good life. I think there's a moral objection to that immediately comes. People will say: We were built for something else. We were made for something else; not to be idiotically happy the whole time. So, it's the subjective element there that if you want to maximize happiness, you are really wanting to maximize just a state of feeling, divorced entirely from the pursuit of those things that would justifiably make you happy. I think that's our main critique of happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of an achievement of doing something well, of realizing your potential, flourishing, and things of that kind. And on environmentalism, I think the basic things is: We are taking a bet that the science will bring acquisitiveness to an end. But suppose the science doesn't. Suppose we invent some technical fixes that will enable us to go on growing and growing and growing. And people are already saying: Well, maybe we just set up shop on Mars. We'll have enough science to be able to do it. So, I think that check on growth comes in too late and it may not come in at all. We may find some way of going on growing by overcoming the environmental problem. Russ: Well, that's a great critique, and I think very provocative and one I'm sympathetic to. What I'm curious is how you reconcile that with the Keynesian idea of purposiveness being not so important and part of our delusion that keeps us on the treadmill. So, how do we get there from here? Not policy-wise; I want to come and talk about that at the end. I'm just thinking about just the logic of your argument. As a religious person, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that a blissful life free from pain is not meaningful. But American culture, and I assume European culture also--that's part of the goal. Lots of pleasure and minimized pain. And I agree with you: that's a thin life. But how do you justify that to the rest of the world? They don't seem to think so. Guest: Yeah. I think it's a thin life. Well, we have to get back to ethics, and ask the question: What are the ends of life? And what would constitute a good life? That's a moral question. It's independent of what makes us happy or miserable. Though there's a relation of course between those, of course. But it is independent of that. So we have to ask that basic moral question: Is there such a thing as the good life? And there, the critique of our position is: Well, everyone has their own ideas of what the good life is, and there's it's very wrong that you should even try to lay down a law about this, and shouldn't the state confine itself to constructing a neutral set of rules allowing people to pursue their own visions of the good life? Well, I think that, although variety undoubtedly exists, it's much less extensive than is often supposed. I mean, all the religions and all the cultures across the world encourage certain things they regard as good. There's a very large degree of consensus about what is good. And we have to look at those traditions--they are Christian traditions, Confucian, Buddhist, Islamic. All their philosophers--they didn't say exactly the same thing but there's a very large overlap in their opinions of what is good, what is a good life. And so we have to sort of, not reinvent those traditions, but we have to rediscover them. We have to decide ourselves what we think the purpose of life is. And then we can start reorienting our lives and start critiquing the idea that the only purpose of life is to get more and more goods, make us happier. This is all quite apart from the fact that getting more and more goods don't make us happier. Russ: Yeah. Well, that's another question.
28:55Russ: But back to my question: There's no doubt an enormous cultural theme in many modern societies that the goal of life is to have fun. You can dress it up a little bit. As long as you don't hurt anybody. That's a parody of the libertarian philosophy. A parody of the libertarian philosophy is: it's all about fun, but just don't hurt anybody. And as a libertarian who cares about something other than fun, that parody rules out joining with others to help other people, to create, to play, to sing, to dance, to do all the things that make life, as you say, flourish and meaningful. I don't see any reason that you can't allow people the freedom to pursue what they want and many of us can still do glorious things that you would call good. But many people will not. They don't want that. They just want to have fun. What's your message for them? Guest: Well, I think it would be very wrong to equate leading a good life with absence of fun. You mentioned, you just used the word "play." Well, play is fun. And there are many ways one can play. And I think playfulness would be one of the elements of a good life. Because in play, you are not making calculations, you see. You are not thinking: Well, am I wasting time playing when I could be actually earning money. Russ: Right. Guest: So, I think it doesn't exclude play or fun. On the other hand, a life--one of our goods is security. And it's very hard to have fun if you are worried about your jobs or about where your next meal is coming from. So, I think the view to stress in all this is that there is a lot of fun in leading a good life. But it's not just a continual expression of one's hedonistic and sexual desires. That is I think one of the ways in which having fun is interpreted by our civilization, a kind of perpetual infantilism. You just give way to every desire you have, the whole time. And that's having fun. The fact is that it doesn't give you much fun. Especially if you take a slightly longer view of it. It comes back to this idea--if your idea is to have fun, why do anything at all? Why not just give yourself a pill that makes you feel you are having fun? You can't get out of the dilemma of in the end having to confront what is a good life. And having fun doesn't get you there. Russ: Again, I agree with that. But not everybody does. So, for those who don't agree, don't accept. Actually, why don't you lay out the basic goods that you think are components of the good life. And then we'll talk about what the challenges might be of this idea. Go ahead. Guest: Well, we suggest seven: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure are our goods. They are not meant to be completely exhaustive and they are not meant to be dogmatic. And they also link up with each other in rather complex ways. But they are the basic goods. We think that without the existence of these goods to some degree in everyone's life, that life cannot be a good life. Russ: And how do those goods conflict with the modern view that says growth is good? Where does the idea of satiation or enough come into your idea? Guest: Well, I think the emphasis on growth to the exclusion of other things means that there is an insufficient quantity of these goods that I've outlined being produced. Our society under-produces the goods that make for a good life. And over-produces the goods that make for a bad life. And that's what our basic argument is: that if you are obsessed simply with maximizing the quantity of consumption goods--this is just one example--you under-produce something else that you want. Which is friendship and a sense of community and as you put it, helping others. You also destroy nature. Lots of things that a one-track obsession with maximizing economic growth destroy on the way which are components of what most people would regard as a good life. And yet we can't get there.
34:21Russ: So, my view is that as human beings, as you mentioned earlier, we have this urge for more and to strive. And I view one of the tests of our humanity is to not let that destroy us, not let that overtake us, not let that overwhelm our time, as you point out. So, I don't disagree with you, right? So, where do we disagree? And I think where we disagree is: I like to preach that; I teach it to my children; I'm happy to tell it to friends if they are interested. What's the justification for putting that at the center of public policy? Which I think you'd like it to be. Guest: Well, you start from the insanity of not putting it at the center of public policy. After a certain plateau of wealth has been achieved, you have to regard it as insane to want to have a thousand pair of shoes. And if you think of the whole society as wanting more and more and more and more, it is a form of collective insanity. I mean, that's how you start. Then you get into the question of: Okay, what alternative goals would reasonable people set themselves? And then you get into the things we've talked about--happiness, or the environment. And into the inadequacy of those as goals. So, you are drawn through almost peeling the banana skin to something that's more fundamental. And ultimately to the question: What constitutes a good life? And once you get to that question, I don't think you'll get nearly as much disagreement as you've been suggesting. I think most people do regard these as goods. I don't think anyone would say that bad health is not a good thing, or that security isn't a good thing. There are some right-wing ideologues, as you've pointed out, which say: No, no, no, insecurity is the only thing that matters. But insecurity of course makes not only for a bad life, but for unhappiness as well. So, it fails on both those tests, whichever one you choose to use. And similarly, most people always think they want more time with their friends; they are deploring the decline of community. They want more room to express themselves, more space to express themselves. Most people when asked would like to work less at jobs they have to do in order to develop other bits of their personalities, their hobbies, things they feel they could do. So, you wouldn't get too much disagreement on a lot of this. Russ: So, why do we need-- Guest: It's a bit of a cliche I think to say that as soon as one starts a discussion that everyone goes off in all different directions. I don't think they do. It's not been my experience, anyway. Russ: I think you are right. I think many people who pursue happiness rather than meaning, however you want to parse that, regret it at some point. Look back on their life with regret, for whatever reason. The question is, again, what's the public policy implication? So, do you really think--I would suggest this is as much cultural as it is political, that we have our attitudes toward money and meaning and friendship and time and leisure. I'm not sure it comes from the public policy problem. It comes from inside us, doesn't it? Guest: Well, of course. It must do. You have to start from the individual, and individual realization that his or her own life is not getting to where they want it to. So, there has to be this cultural shift. Which I would say would be an ethical shift. And then, if there are enough people who believe this to be the case, then I think you start relying on the democratic process to reorient policy, as in a democracy it should. I'm not in favor of imposing the good life on people by a set of laws. It would be impossible anyway, certainly in any kind of free society. So, you get a sort of ethical shift arising out of the dissatisfaction with many aspects of our present life. And then that can suggest ways in which the law can be shifted to reflect that. And we do suggest certain ways in which the law can help realize what is a cultural or ethical shift. Russ: You do want to nudge people a little bit toward what you think your version of the good life is. Guest: I want to nudge people. I mean, people are being nudged the whole time. They are hardly aware of it. A lot of people talk about how you mustn't interfere with anyone's liberty to do this, that, or the other; and anything like that would be coercive, and yet they ignore the fact that the state already interferes in all kinds of ways. Even the American state does. What about the security state? The fact that more and more people are under surveillance? The fact that more and more goods are being prevented: there are lots of curbs on advertising, all kinds of things, on the grounds that the state believes that they are harmful. We're not allowed to indulge our free choice in pornography. The state already does do this. It already in certain areas does try to nudge people away from harm. We are suggesting that the nudging also include nudging them towards the good. Always starting from the principle that there's enough agreement that this should be done.
40:52Russ: Well, I agree with you the state already does some of this nudging. And more than nudging in some states, obviously. The question is: Should they do more or less? I'd like to see them do less. I'd like to see the good life, as you define it, preached by people like you. I love that; I think it's a beautiful thing that you are encouraging people to look for meaning and not look for acquisitiveness, stuff, as I think Adam Smith did in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I think that's great. But what does this have to do with the government at all? Guest: Well, the government might make it easier for people to lead a good life if they want to. One example of that is the way work is organized. It should be easier for people to work less. A lot of jobs come as full-time jobs. Take it or leave it. If you say: I want to work 20 hours a week because I have other things I want to do in my waking hours, there are a whole range of jobs which you can't do this in. The organization of the labor market in fact is a very powerful determinant of how much free time or leisure you've got. I would be perfectly happy, as they do in many European countries, to impose limitations on work hours--for all kinds of jobs. Not for all jobs. I don't think that you and I think we are doing really creative jobs and want to spend 60 hours a week doing it that the state should come in and say, No, you are only allowed to spend 20 hours a week doing it. But there are a lot of jobs in which people are worked very hard; and they are not creative, and they would like to work less. I think the state should help them to do that. I think people are subject to an unbelievable bombardment of advertising. They think they are making all their choices freely. In fact their choices--what to buy, what to like--are being powerfully shaped by what they see on their television screens or internet. And I think you can find a way of lessening that bombardment. Now you might then say: But that interferes with the freedom of advertisers to display whatever goods they want, and the freedom of people to watch them. Russ: Yes. Guest: But in fact, these freedoms--I think the freedom of people in that respect is actually much less than we think. People enjoy watching TV programs. They enjoy watching all sorts of things that are perfectly reasonable for them to enjoy watching. But they have to take a whole load of advertising with it. Russ: My only response to that is that I don't think I'm suckered in. Maybe I'm naive. But I have more respect for folks in their autonomy than you do, I suspect. Guest: Well, you may be right. Why do advertisers feel it's worthwhile to spend so much money promoting their products if people aren't [?], if people aren't suckers? A lot of people aren't suckers. Russ: Well, because the world is a busy place. Guest: Huh? Russ: It's the same reason I tweet. And you do, too. I don't spend much time on a lot of other social meeting. But a lot of advertising is just reminding people I'm out here. It's like waving a little flag. I wish I could convince people to read my books or listen to my podcasts with an ad. But it doesn't seem to work that way, for me. Just keep up with the pace. Guest: Well, I'm a bit more cynical than that. Not about--I think they advertise because they think of it as a way of making money. Russ: Well, they do. Guest: Pure and simple. But the way they make money is--and often, they don't tell you about their products. You don't really want someone to remind you, a manufacturer, that he exists. You actually want to learn something about what he's producing. And a lot of ads don't tell you that at all. They just say: You'll feel a lot better if you buy our product; you'll be sexier, you'll be better in all kinds of ways. And that's a sort of suggestion. Why do they bother with the suggestion if they think a lot of people aren't going to be influenced by it? That's the question I would ask. Russ: Well, I think it's a really interesting discussion. I think they are influenced to some extent; but I think I could say all day long that if you listen to EconTalk you'll get thin and make a lot of money and be very popular. I can say that. I don't think it's going to work very well. You could say: They say it better than I do. I just think--I really do think a lot of advertising is merely reminding people. But that's a long conversation, I guess.
46:03Russ: You say at one point: "Economists have no ambition to remake human nature. They take people as they are, not as they should be. After all the horrors committed in the name of heaven and utopia, this seems to them a suitably modest stance." You don't want to remake human nature, either, do you? That's not your goal here. Guest: No, I don't want to remake human nature. I want to accept a lot of things as just being part of human nature. But I think our criticism is that the way civilization is constructed at the moment denies a lot of elements in human nature. They are not given enough expression. There is a bias. We are a commercial civilization. Our business is business. Business has become--I think it was one of the American presidents who said: America's business is business. Russ: It was an idiot president. But go ahead. Guest: But he said it enough. I mean, if you are in restaurant conversations, around the place, it's all about businesses. About doing deals. It's about how much can we borrow from the bank, what rate of interest. Much, much more than it used to be. The business psychology has spread throughout certainly the Anglo-American type of society, which I'm most familiar with. It's probably less important in others. So, that's an example of denying part of human nature. And simply shaping it in one direction. Russ: Maybe you are eating in the wrong restaurants. I have to say: I agree with you; a lot of the world is obsessed with money. A lot of the world is obsessed with deals. But there are a lot of people obsessed with backgammon and stamp collecting and fantasy football and all kinds of bizarre human forms of expression. Music, photography--they've never been richer than they are now. Never. Never in human history have people had so much access to glorious, creative opportunities and to share them with others. So, maybe the glass is half full, not half empty. Guest: Well, I applaud all of that. But if you work 50 or 60 hours a week, even with your holidays, you may not have nearly as much time as you want to do all these things. And all we're saying is, we should be getting to a point where people can make easier for people to make different choices between work and leisure. You see--I highly respect your position. You are an American libertarian who is also worried about the way society works but doesn't want to do anything about it. Except by way of individual conversion. Russ: Yup. One at a time. Guest: I mean, that's a perfectly respectable position. But I don't think it's enough. Russ: Well, I care about the soul. You can say it religiously or just in a spiritual way. I do think that should be an important part of our lives, and I agree with you. You are right. I just want to do it on an individual basis. Part of the reason is that I don't trust power to do what the Skidelskys want. They never have, the powerful people. They do their own thing. So, I assume you have some unease about making this too much a central role for the state. Guest: Yeah, of course. And that's why we have as one of our basic goods--it limits anything the state can do. And that is autonomy. You know. And respect. Those are central in our list. Respect includes autonomy. We respect the choices of others. We do not try and coerce people. And that limits completely the amount the state is entitled to do in our system. And we take that very seriously. But I agree--of course one should be suspicious of power. And one shouldn't allow it too much scope. I think perhaps the American tradition is a little too suspicious of power. Maybe the European tradition isn't suspicious enough. That may be a cultural variation. Russ: Yeah. Yeah. It goes back to 1776. Guest: It may well be.
51:21Russ: Your book is very critical of growth. We've talked about some of the moral dimensions of that and why happiness and environmental issues are not enough to condemn growth as a public policy. An alternative criticism of your thesis, though, is that growth is what makes those good-life characteristics possible. It's led to--and it includes the commercial urge, the acquisitive urge. It's that acquisitive urge that has led to the extraordinary division of labor, the extraordinary level of civilization that we've been able to achieve, the leisure that we do enjoy in many, many ways, the longer lifespan, the actually better environment; more access to good parts of nature, there's more people hiking now, more people exercising, more people living longer, having the time despite their hours of work to explore the things they love. That all comes from growth. What's wrong with it? Guest: Well, and it should be the goal of many, many parts of the world where these things aren't possible still, because of poverty. Elimination of poverty must be the primary goal, for people who live in poverty and therefore can't do all these things. But you say: What's wrong with it? Well, nothing's wrong with it. Nothing's wrong with what growth has achieved. It's made [?]. But go 100, 200, 300 years into the future. Do you still want all this, all of us just to be growing and growing and having more and more things? Do you think there's no limit anywhere? Because I think just to go on getting more and more and more rather than pausing and saying: Look, let's enjoy the moment and let's have more and more moments when we are not calculating life--is something people, I think that's the position we should reach after a certain amount of growth. I just don't see how the world goes on along the lines you just sketched. It just seems to me that growth forever and ever can't be, can't be a realizable objective. Or a sane objective, I would say.

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COMMENTS (66 to date)
utiz4321 writes:

i think the guest discounts the argument that increasing leisure would increase idleness. I think that one of the only statistically measurable affects on quality of life of France's 35 hour work week is an increase in the amount of time people watch tv. another major problem I have with his ideas (and the left more generally) is this idea that because quantitatively people share a great deal of common wants and needs that can be generalized into some agreed upon "good life". we share most of the same wants and needs with chimps, but it is the relatively smalls ( as far as quantity of differences) that make what is a good life for a chimp and a human so different that there is simply no way to find a a common "good life" rule that would work for both. Likewise for people, yes if you listed all of things that make up a perception of what would be a good life for every person on earth then quantitatively the list would contain more in common that different. but the differences are such that no rule would be able to reconcile them and any attempt to do so would necessarily lead to oppression of certain segments of society.

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William Foster writes:

Big name and all, I understand, and you did your best. But that was one of the more shallow interviews that I’ve heard.

Economists posing as philosopher kings are tricky, if not downright creepy. Especially when the state,which is going to “nudge” us along the path to the “good life,” claims, as a far more profound philosopher (certainly than Baron – ahem – Skidelsky) once said, the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. I’d like to be in on defining and promoting the Good Life, thank you very much, Your Lordship.

But more substantially, I wonder how these just-so speculations might be revised from the perspective of the parent and the grandparent? The "good life" presented here is nicely consistent with the comfortable academic life of a small fraction of humanity, but doesn’t it feel somewhat self-centered and sterile. What evidence do we have that, if a government or intellectual elite focusses on Skidelsky’s set of Nice Things to Have, the extended, spontaneous order of uncoordinated peons and worker bees could sustain itself? Aren’t there important selection effects going on here? Remember, the Eloi had health, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure – and security, up to a point.

And to-each-his-own and all, but it is rich that Keynes entitled his essay, which introduced this podcast, the "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" – when he was not particularly interested himself in pitching in and contributing to the millions yet unborn. What do you mean “OUR grandchildren,” white man?

Nick writes:

As distressing as it may be to those who wish to see everyone ground down by work the younger generations generally agree with this sentiment expressed in the earlier part of the talk. To see evidence look no further than the recent trends of
"mini retirement" and "fun-employment" that have become popular in the last decade.

Fun-employment is a term used for people who lose their jobs and decide to spend their time on unemployment benefits engaged in leisure rather than seeking a new job until the benefits expire.

Mini-retirement is a practice many younger folks engage in where they are serially employed. Each employment lasts only a few years in which they save for a sabbatical lasting weeks to months, until seeking the next job when funds run dry. This concept was popularized in the self help bestseller "The Four-Hour Work Week".

I do not think its wholly unbelievable that most people do not wish to work as hard as they do. The reasons many people cannot engage in these practices is because of excess debt. Credit cards, car loans, homes. This is a cultural phenomenon. I remember buying my first new car, and home how my family and friends congratulated me on "making it" I thought it was very odd to be congratulated on acquiring nearly $100,000 in debts. It is a weird middle class right of passage to acquire these large debts and leisure can only be a primary focus when not under the crushing weight of these debt obligations. This is why it is relegated to the end of life. A home loan is 30yrs assume you get your first home in mid to late twenties, it is paid off by retirement.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Two possible ideas to explain why we continue to work 40h weeks:

- scale and overheads: people are relatively more productive when they work concentrated time. It is better to hire one person for 40h/week than two for 20h/week.

- managing risk: you want to secure your old age. If things go wrong, it is easier to continue working, rather than add extra hours. In other words, working hard now gives you buffer for when you are older. That said, I'm not sure that people's saving habits support this theory.

Ryan writes:

I think the guest is very simplistic in his views on a couple points.

Frist, the only way for a child to understand that touching the stove will burn you is to touch the stove. You can explain and teach till the cows come home, but in the end, it always takes the child touching the stove and getting burned before the lesson is learned. The same is true for buyers remorse. You dont really learn that lesson until youve experienced it in your gut. How are we supposed to teach a whole society that unfettered pursuit of material things is empty unless we let them experience buyers remorse? I just see it as an impossibility. Learning the hard way is really the only way to learn lessons like that.

Second, within any hobby pursuit (lets use photography since it was brought up in the talk) there is a wide range of price/value options..You could pursue the hobby on a hand-me-down iphone with no cell phone plan..essentially a free option. On the far end you can spend north of $100k on professional gear. What is the correct choice for every person? Ive seen amazing pictures taken by skilled photographers using an iphone...does that mean there is no point in anything higher end..ever..for anyone? I think weve all seen photographic evidence that refutes that premise. Ive also seen rank amateurs who have more gear than their skill can possibly take advantage of..see point number one. Even if that last example never develoops past being a hack photographer, who is to say if he got suitabley enough joy out of the pictures he took to offset the price he paid?

Its not for anyone to decide what is the best use of your time.

Lastly, that is one measly hobby. All the same cost options exist in almost every hobby Ive ever explored. Who Decides? It would take an enormous committe just to attempt it.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

The argument that Skidelsky presents is a refelction of the subtle message change that the Left underwent in the 1960's. From Marx until then the Left had sternly and direly warned that capitalism would immiserate the workers and that Socialism would offer a better material standard of living. So, their argument went, support Socialism and socialists and enjoy a better material standard of living.

When that dire warning failed to happen, the Left simply changed the argument: sure, capitalism will massively increase the material well-being of workers compared to socialism, but what kind of life is that? Support Socialism and socialists, you won't have much of a life materially, you don't really need all those baubles, and you'll have plenty of free time to do those things that socialists think are really worth living for.

Nice try.

I did notice that what Skidelsky was trying to intimate is that we Americans (like many Europeans)work all these long hours for trifles: the latest gadgets, one thousand pairs of shoes, etc. Therefore, I believe his argument is that we should be nudged to forgo these trifles such that we can enjoy the things he seems to think are more worthy.

For some, maybe. For me? I don't work for trifles, and I am not trying to "keep up with the Joneses". However, if one has children, as I do, and you wish to own a home in the DC area, and do not wish to subject your children to schools that are abject failures or schools which have an abysmal, crippling, and dysfunctional culture (and most likely all of the above) then you are going to have to work long hours indeed. If you like to travel or, like myself, have friends and family who live in Europe, the cost of travel is prohibitively expensive even if you do work a lot.

What I've always feared about the "nudge" towards the "good life" as defined by Leftists is that the their "good life" is as follows: you can't have anything, can't go anywhere, and can't do anything. Socialism is pretty good at getting you that...

Dean Harrington writes:

The digest and tone of Mr. Skidelsky's argument frightens me. I give you great credit Russ for restraining yourself from exposing the innumerable problems that imposing your guests utopia would have on society.

As Milton Friedman tells Phil Donahue in his great little reply on greed:

"Where in the world do you find these angels who are going to organize society for us? I don't even trust you to do that."

Incidentally, most money spent on advertizing is to distinguish one company from another, not to influence someone to buy a product they ordinarily wouldn't. That could have been the argument used to diffuse the guests desire to stifle free speech in the greater good of controlling growth, of course, only after he had working over 20 hours outlawed for all those not as creative like him.

Good grief! @DeansDesk

Ken P writes:

I was amused by the way Robert wanted to make an exception for his own job. HE would be allowed to work 60hr weeks. And presumably the right policy wonks would be able to decide which jobs were truly rewarding and which were not.

I expect leisure-seeking to emerge. The mini retirement fad mentioned by Nick is a great example and people are doing that in early years of life. I wonder if the decreasing percentage of people working is a tell of future increased demand for leisure.

The high housing to income ratio makes such decisions harder to make. Policy makers seem to be almost universal in their belief that home prices need to go up. That will only make the ability to pursue leisure and prosperity in general more elusive.

Maribel Tipton writes:

What about the role an increasing population plays in the focus on growth. Don't we need to constantly increase production so that we can ensure future generations can have better living standards or at least the same as the previous generation? What about the contries that still live in extreme poverty? Given the interconnectedness of the world, couldn't it be assumed that if most contries strive for growth (more production) more people in the world will be better of. Not just the rich but also the extremely poor. I also think more weight should be given to the QUALITY point, in terms of explaining why people work more to acquire more things, there are many things today that didn't even exist in the past that increase a persons wellbeing and enjoyment, in my case, a bigger fridge, a nicer TV, an XBOX with internet connection, smart tv's, IPADS, nicer cars, commercial airplanes, health care services, plastic surgery, all better and with conveniences that truely make life more enjoyable, at least in my case, I LOVE MY IPAD, MY FAMILY DOES. I certainly had to work harder for it, I could have chosen not to; I could live in a smaller house with everything around me more crappy for sure, and have more leisure time to..........(certainly not travel or do anything that requires money) but I made my tradeoff, at least for now, I might adjust it later.

txslr writes:

I had the advantage of spending a number of years of primary school in the Deep South in the early 1960’s where arguments similar to those of your guest could regularly be heard. We were often told that the slaves in the antebellum south were really happy and were only made miserable by the emancipation. Prior to the War of Northern Aggression those lucky slaves had wise masters to take care of them and keep them from making bad decisions, you see.

I was most struck by the shallowness of Skidelsky’s argument and by what sounded like his frustration at being asked to move beyond the most facile pronouncements. What he winds up with are nostrums along the lines of “Money can’t buy happiness” coupled with standard leftist claptrap about how we’re all being exploited by secret forces whose malevolence can be observed by those with the eyes to see(in this case in modern advertising and the 40-hour workweek).

I think the argument is made better by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and it still fails.

Noah Carl writes:

Skidelsky's implied policy prescription for advertising is pure free-lunch fallacy. He asks: why shouldn't consumers be able to watch television without being bombarded by advertising? Answer: advertisers sponsor TV programmes, which allows those programmes to be free at the point of use! Obviously, there are other ways of paying for TV programmes, but the fact that Skidelsky neglects to even mention the role TV advertisers play in sponsorship suggests that he has quite a limited understanding of economics.

Overall, I was pretty unimpressed with Skidelsky's arguments.

Emerich writes:

I’m amazed that Lord Skidelsky is unaware how much the world has moved in his direction in just the last few years. Economic growth hasn’t been much above 0 the last half decade, and with luck might soon fall back below 0 again. Where's the "obsession"? The number of people enjoying less than full employment, with all the leisure that implies, is at a record in the United States and most of Europe. This state of affairs is surely abetted by our public policy. While the U.S. might be a little behind Europe when it comes to nudging, the Baron may be gratified to learn that we created enough rules and laws to nudge, constrain, and compel Americans in various ways to fill 82,419 densely packed pages last year alone. (The Federal Register is accessible to anyone with a little leisure: https://www.federalregister.gov/) There seem to be some people making public policy who are very much of Mr. Skidelsky’s mind, even here.

James writes:

Like a lot of philosophy, Skidelsky’s arguments are mostly against straw men rather than common points of view. I think it is simply illogical to try to argue against hedonism, because you always regress back to some kind of happiness-like justification for your argument.

"That is I think one of the ways in which having fun is interpreted by our civilization, a kind of perpetual infantilism. You just give way to every desire you have, the whole time. And that's having fun. The fact is that it doesn't give you much fun."

This isn't an argument against hedonism, its an argument against bad hedonism. This type of behavior does not maximize happiness. All you guys were saying is that a different set of things are what actually maximize happiness, like Skidelsky's 7 goods. I agree there are universal things that make nearly every human happy, but there are also myriad differences. Just look at male vs. female hobbies...

You know you are off in philosophical la-la-land when you start talking about a pill that makes you endlessly happy with zero side effects. No such pill exists, and if it did everyone would be taking it. It is highly unlikely that anything like that will ever exist as every drug causes side effects. Everyone has a "happiness set point". What is more likely is we will genetically enhance our children so they are happier by default. Happier people are more pleasant to be around (duh) and have all kinds of positive life outcomes on top of being happier.

Brad Hutchings writes:

"After a certain plateau of wealth has been achieved, you have to regard it as insane to want to have a thousand pair of shoes."

He lost me here. What if collecting shoes makes you happy? Would he say the same about the stamp collector or the Beanie Baby collector?

I'm entirely serious. There is whole subculture around collecting sneakers. They have shows, where they get together. They have magazines. They have websites. These are generally fun, happy people to hang out with. They like their shoes. Is this not the leisure he would like to encourage?

Shawn writes:

On the Keynes essay...

Wouldn't higher savings imply that you are contented with your lot, and therefore already living the good life? Isn't what is enough always going to be relative? Why are utopian goals always in the future, and what does that have to do with spending? Seems like Keynes had an unsettled mind to me.

BZ writes:

Dear EconTalk,

Please change commenting to use the Facebook interface like over at Cafe Hayek. That way, I can Like Emerich's comment, as God intended.

[Hi, BZ. We'll keep that in mind for the future. In the meantime, though less elegantly, you could still Share the comment on FB with the url: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/10/robert_skidelsk.html#c231142 --Econlib Ed.]

Justin P writes:

Like and +1 Emerich's comment above!

Skidelsky argument doesn't sway me one bit. It's high on emotional appeal and straw men and low on logic.

The problem with men like Skidelsky is that they think they know what other people should want. Like all nanny Statists, they are probably surrounded by people that think like them, and could never imagine Nixon winning... after all no one they know voted for him!

Mohammed writes:

Russ, listening to econtalk did make me thin ! You forgot that you interviewed Taubes, Devany and Taleb.

Daniel writes:

Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear Russ call President Calvin Coolidge an idiot? What Coolidge actually said was "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." Would you clarify, Russ?

Jonathan writes:

Skidelsky is quite free to work fewer hours and consume as little as he wishes.

Why we should be cheeky enough to suggest we impose his personal preferences on everyone else is left rather unexplained (not that he mentions how).

To tell a young adult to simply not use initiative or improve anything as that would be pesky progress and that they should instead be like the leisured intellectuals of Keynes circle is unbelievably naiive. Has Skidelsky been to housing projects/council estates where there are many people with lots of time on their hands with the basics of life provided for?

I notice they are not collecting butterflies or composing poetry, rather, their idleness is a great source of frustration and the consequences are hardly something to be wished for.

There are so many staggeringly daft comments in here it's hard to parody... Skidelsy looks forward to this new utopia 'after economics'.. can you imagine a scientist saying he looks forward to a life where we dont need to worry about science once we have discovered 'enough'.

I'm afraid the laws of economics and science don't just stop Lord (!?) Skidelsky.

Emerich writes:

Picking up on Daniel's point, Russ, your casual contempt for Coolidge was a bit shocking. One of your previous guests, Amity Shlaes, is coming out with a Coolidge biography soon. I hope you have her on.

Robert writes:

Perhaps my view is over-simplistic, but isn't the idea of government mandated happiness (as the government defines happiness of course)terrifying. I certainly agree with Sidelsky's recipe for happiness, but I also believe religious belief is a vital component of happiness. Should the government(the politicians at a given moment in time) force "the religion of the day" on the people?

Nathan writes:

Some of the disagreement can be resolved with basic economic theory. When I look at a billboard, the owner of the property that the billboard sits on is selling access to my field of vision to a third party without my consent. This is immoral and should be illegal; it is fundamentally different than a magazine advertisement, which I consent to view by virtue of buying the magazine.

Ecological issues work similarly; everyone who likes (or at a minimum those who have a claim of ownership over) the great barrier reef should be compensated for its destruction. This is not happening.

If the US labour market does not allow for enough part time work, perhaps Russ would be enthusiastic at least about considering whether some government interference is currently preventing a more flexible labour market. (My intuition is that it is).

If externalities were better internalized and property rights (like the right to my field of vision) better respected, it would be easier to enjoy the good life.

Chris writes:

Skidelsky's appeal to the "good life" is problematic because it ignores the fact that "acquisitiveness" is what aligns our interests with those of the rest of society. We can "leave money on the table" by choice but this is voluntary selfish behavior. What makes no sense is for the state to try and curb productive work and its massive spillover effects. The whole argument seems to me to be a way of making the upper classes of developed nations more amenable to confiscatory taxation because what better "nudge" is there to increase your leisure than a 75% tax rate.

Keith writes:

If you break it down to a simple idea, it seems that advertising is
merely a way for someone to find someone else to trade with.

If you break down what Mr. Skidelsky is saying it amounts to this:

Everyone else but me is a fool, and the State must step in to keep
other fools from taking advantage of them.

John S. writes:

According to this article, 57% of Americans don't take all of their vacation. Now the article claims it's because we're afraid to take it, but I don't think that's the case. I'm certainly not afraid. I just prefer working.

Pete writes:

Speaking as a marketing executive of 15 years, I will tell you first hand that advertising is indeed designed to create demand, and in fact this is the cornerstone of a good campaign. It is decidedly not simply to differentiate from the competition. Marketers, good ones, also employ psychological tactics to influence consumers. Many of these are indefensible if you do not know about them and many are used on children who have yet to develop the capacity to either identify or resist them. This is not speculation or opinion. I know it to be the case because I was the one doing it. The very notion that advertising doesn't work is in and of itself a PR campaign originally initiated by Y&R. I don't weigh in on economic issues as strongly because I yield to the experts here. On this, I am said expert. To anyone who would challenge this fact I would ask you to pick up a copy of "INFLUENCE" by Robert Caldini. A very easy read that pretty much lays out the blueprint from which compliance professionals (marketers) work. It's basic, but you will be amazed at how prophetic it can be at times as it is 20 years old.

pyroseed13 writes:

Skidelsky fails to understand that for many people a job is not a means to an end but an end itself. Let's be honest, having a lot of leisure time just gets boring after awhile. People want to be productive.

Russ Roberts writes:

Pete,

I never said that advertising didn't create demand or influence consumers. My claim is that its most important effect is to remind consumers that a product exists. That creates demand for the product. Without it, people in a busy world will forget about you. But of course it does more than remind you a product exists. A good advertising campaign can create a sense of identity around a product that goes way beyond the narrow usefulness for the user or consumer. Apple products are an obvious example.

But is there anything sinister or scary or destructive or wasteful about this? Is Skidelsky right when he says:

I think people are subject to an unbelievable bombardment of advertising. They think they are making all their choices freely. In fact their choices--what to buy, what to like--are being powerfully shaped by what they see on their television screens or internet. And I think you can find a way of lessening that bombardment.

Earlier he calls people suckers.

Who is he talking about? When I enjoy an Apple ad and enjoy purchasing an Apple product am I a sucker? Am I being controlled or manipulated? Do I lack freedom of choice? Does Skidelsky think he is a sucker? Or you?

My view is to respect people's ability to make their choices even when people are trying to influence them. I prefer that to a world where others wield power to protect me.

If you are worried about these effects, dedicate yourself to explaining to people how they are manipulated. There are a lot of books out there that warn us of manipulation. I assume some of those dangers are real. So ring the bell rather than trying to treat people like children.

Lio from France writes:

@utiz4321

"I think that one of the only statistically measurable affects on quality of life of France's 35 hour work week is an increase in the amount of time people watch tv."

And soon, the French will no longer buy a TV!

Eric writes:

First: OK, Russ, time to put up your evidence that Calvin Coolidge was an idiot. You are apparently fervent in that belief... convert the rest of us. I'm not sure you'll have an easy time of it.

On the interview as a whole, I was really taken aback by the overall Malthusian flavor of Skidelsky's arguments, and amazed that you didn't call him on it. His final comments show it so well... there is an ultimate limit to what we can produce, so it is in our best interest to slow down our growth so that we do not achieve that limit. His comments at the start of the interview in agreement with Keynes's thoughts that today we'd be where we needed to be in terms of productivity etc show this Malthusian context as well. And since you have argued so well in past interviews and writings that we're better off than we were 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 years ago I am amazed that you didn't pick up on this argument.

Bogart writes:

The academic good life in the USA and I bet the rest of the world is about to change and change for the worse. The student debt situation in the USA is completely unsustainable and the value of higher education is becoming questionable.

I do not consider humans working for individual ends to be insane. I consider working for the ends of Mr. Skidelsky to be insane. I consider it much worse than insane if Mr. Sidelsky can convince a large enough minority of people that his ends should be achieved through the violence of the state.

Lastly, economists are not the princes and philosopher kinds of the world. They are simply one half of the court propaganda bureaucracy. The major media outlets are the other half.

Russ Roberts writes:

Folks,

I don't think Calvin Coolidge is an idiot. I made a throwaway remark about a quote--"the business of America is business." I didn't know Coolidge said it. But I don't like the quote. I don't know the context of the quote so yes, I am judging it unfairly. But I hate the idea that what is good for business is good for America or most Americans, and that quote has that flavor to it. Or that business or our careers define us. Or that our commercial activities are our most important activities.

The business of America is liberty, the liberty to buy from whom we want, hire who we want, work for who we want, create organizations freely with the people we choose.

My last two books, The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything deal at length with these issues--the virtues of commercial life but how those virtues are not simply about the making of money.

To the extent that we confuse the virtues of economic liberty with being pro-business, we help to destroy economic liberty.

Methinks writes:

Skidelsky peddles his ideas and he peddles his publications.

I'd like to know why he thinks I should be more offended by or suspicious of the manufacturers of breakfast cereals peddling their output to me than I should be of Skidelsky peddling his.

sebastian writes:

Very interesting discussion.

I want to echo Nathan, above: we have a right to not be bombarded with advertisement in public spaces. As a society(yes yes) we do frown upon advertisements for certain types of products(restricting cigarette commercials from tv for instance).

Good advertising campaigns can shape behaviors and that's why they're worth scrutinizing(again reference to smoking and drinking).

As someone that does struggle with controlling my snacking(for instance), one of the reasons why I don't watch tv is to avoid endless commercials of food that I shouldn't eat from parading in front of me.


Considering all that: Is it OK for marketers/corporations to target small children with various sugary food commercials? Considering that, even if you're not a low-carb person, sugar is probably the most addictive(behaviorally and chemically) substance that little kids consume?

Obviously parents have a role in controlling what their kids watch on tv and eat. Equally obviously parents are failing in this role. Do marketers have no responsibility in this?

TLDR; Just because I want something doesn't mean it's good for me, and I probably know it. If someone encourages me to consume things that are bad for me, then they're being, from my perspective, [insert expletive]. That being said I don't have any clear view on what should be done about that.

Methinks writes:

Sebastian, kids have parents to curb their consumption. Kids have no ability to earn money or drive to the store to buy Coco Puffs. So, yeah, it's okay for evil marketers to target innocent children with all sorts of things those kids might enjoy, providing the parents of said children with the opportunity to teach their offspring about trade-offs and self-control. And those are very important lessons. If parents fail in their job as parents, then that is entirely their failure.

You can protect yourself from binging by fast-forwarding through the ads or you can avoid the telly. Clearly you can figure it out for yourself.

It's may be more comfortable for some people to blame their personal failings on others - society, the cat, the weather or Evil Corporations (TM) - but that doesn't change the fact that the failings are personal failings.

lloydfour writes:

Anybody at leisure
Incurs everybody's displeasure.
It seems to be very irking
To people at work to see other people not working ...
All of which results in a nasty quirk:
That if you don't want to work you have to work to earn enough money so that you won't have to work.

Ogden Nash

Ryan Vann writes:

Russ, you are far too kind and conciliatory; I'm sure either the silky accent distracted you. That, or, out pity for buttertoothed Brits, you donned the ole velvet gloves. The moment an appeal to the noble classes of Europe was made, you should 1776ed him off your show.

Essentially his mental process went something like

The peons of the world can now earn more with less labor, but have not reduced their work hours by roughly 80%; this is indicative of an ethical problem.

Nobles of a bygone era had an ethic that was averse to labor.

Of course, he is completely missing the whole serfdom, indentured servant, and dirt cheap laborer thing, whereby noble's "leisure" was supplemented by the grueling labor of peons.

Leisure is expensive. That really is the simple answer to this needlessly complicated nonissue. The more time one spends not working, the more they are likely to engage in activities (which may or may not include accumulating stuff), and these activities often require money to engage in (I'm not just talking bar hoping, or other peasant pastimes here either). Thus the hours freed up by increased productivity incur costs that are subsequently cover by working a bit more.

Becky Yamarik writes:

Very interesting podcast that provoked a spirited discussion between my very Russ-like Economist husband and my more Sidelsky-sympathetic self. . .

One comment re: advertising and its influence. I do think it's naive to feel that oneself is not influenced by advertising. I'm a physician and when I started training in the early 2000s, the drug companies would routinely give us pens and mugs with drug names on them. The companies would buy us dinners and outings to ball games and golf outings, etc. There was a great study that showed that even things like pens with a drugs name on it DOES subtley change physicians' prescribing habits. More and more data came out about the gifts influencing physicians and now much of this gift giving by drug companies has been banned. One great stat from a study on doctor's feelings re: these gifts was that while only 15% of physicians felt that THEY were influenced by gifts from drug companies, 85% felt that OTHER physicians were influenced.

Are the choices in what we consume really as free as we think? Are we really so 'above' advertising?

Russ Roberts writes:

Becky Yamarik,

Your story is an interesting one but I have a different interpretation. Giving people stuff isn't advertising, it's bribing. Advertising wasn't sufficient.

I have no doubt that we are all subtly influenced in various ways by ads and also by the people around us. But it's hard for an ad to get us to become regular and enthusiastic purchasers of lousy products. And then there is the question of what to do about the influence that is there. Ban ads with thin and attractive people? Ads with insufficient information per minute? So while I am sure that we are never as free or independent as we might like to think, we are not suckers or victims or easily manipulated.

My best to your husband. Hope he can continue to influence you as long as you're willing to be influenced. :-).

Robert B. writes:

It is scary how similar the last two interviews were (Frank and Skidelsky). Both men have no confidence in our system of government and our politics. The Left has a deep rooted, undeniable tilt towards the abuse of power - not a monopoly, but a tendency. Frank, however, was very disappointing. He could not conceive of any inherent, moral value to work, unless one is part of the "creative class" in which case 50 or even 60 hours a week is just fine.

I work at a car company. I believe we have a better product, which I work very hard to contribute towards. I think this is morally a virtuous thing to do (and I get paid!). If I convince a young, single mom to put her faith and hard earned dollars into the purchase of my company's car, she will be better off (fewer breakdowns, more comfort & enjoyment, etc.). My talents are as valuable here as they are at a soup kitchen.

And the value to me, of being a creative, energetic, contributing member of society is enormous. I believe that this is as true about me as it it about the janitor in my company who keeps the restrooms operational - without whom I cannot do my job. Compared to that, what is another day at the beach?

Skidelsky has a rather dim, limited view of the value of work. Thank you, Russ, for another eye-opening interview.

Robert B.

Russ Roberts writes:

Robert B,

Thanks for an inspirational story. It reminds me of a book I used to read to my kids--Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Here is the Publisher's Weekly summary:

Freelance illustrator Johnson models his striking debut on a passage from Walden, in which Thoreau advocates journeying on foot over buying a ticket to ride. Henry, a brown bear attired in a brick-red duster and wide-brimmed sun hat, is a kinder, gentler fellow than his cantankerous inspiration. His ursine friend, wearing town clothes and conspicuously toting a pocket watch, makes plans to meet him in Fitchburg, a town 30 miles distant. Spreads contrast the pair's respective travel strategies: on the left, Henry's friend does chores for unseen Mrs. Alcott, Mr. Hawthorne and Mr. Emerson to earn train fare; right-handed pages picture a leisurely Henry examining flora and fauna, admiring the view and excavating a honey tree as he strides toward his destination. At the end of the summer day, "His friend sat on the train in a tangle of people./ Henry ate his way through a blackberry patch." Johnson inventively demonstrates Thoreau's advice with kaleidoscopic illustrations in variegated colors and gently skewed perspectives that weigh fast-paced urban existence against an unmaterialistic life in the woods. Both bears make it to Fitchburg, but Henry's friend wears a blank stare, in contrast to Henry's bright-eyed, curious gaze. Johnson implies what money can and cannot buy, and encourages slowing down to experience nature. With graceful understatement, he presents some complicated ideas assuredly and accessibly.

The message of the story is clear--working to earn money is drudgery compared to a walk in the woods. Now I like a walk in the woods as much, maybe more, than the next fellow. But when I read this story to my children, I made Emerson heroic, talking about how much help he gave to the people he worked for while occasionally giving Henry some bee stings in that blackberry patch to offset the romance.

I'm a big fan of stopping now and then to smell the roses. But being a productive member of society makes the fragrance all the sweeter.

Kenuto writes:

The author offers two solutions to what he thinks is our unnecessarily harried society. The first is to limit advertising so we don't all get obsessed with working so much to buy whatever is advertised. The second solution is to require businessmen and women who put their lives, livelihood and capital at risk to hire people who don't want to work full time jobs.

The author thinks that if only "The State" would make and enforce such rules, we'd get a good jump on the problem. After all, we're all reasonable, agreeable people. What could go wrong?

One thing the author omits from his discussion is the ravenous appetite of The State, and no mention is made of controlling it of course.

Ricardo D writes:

Russ,

I'm probably one of the rarest bird in your audience: a Brazilian libertarian (there are VERY few of us).

I enjoy listening to your podcast when fixing dinner - particularly your left-leaning guests, because you ask the questions I'd like to ask them and that are never asked in regular media.

That said, the Skidelsky interview was a big disappointment. I was already prejudiced against his book, but decided to give the interview a try with an open mind. His ideas sound even more foolish and shallower when spoken out loud. And his Napoleon complex? Insulting. So, convincing people one at a time is too slow for him? Let's use the power of the State to conduct people to (his version of) the Good Life. And CocaCola and GM turn us into slaves with their ads, but it is OK to use public policy to steer me (and society) in his chosen direction? I'm sure the irony escapes him, but it makes it really difficult to take him seriously. It's also funny that he declares himself to be a cynic, but apparently not when it comes to the State and its power. I could go on, but I've made my point.

That is no reflection on you. I still appreciate your interviews immensely. I just hope you have more serious guests in the future. Gotta go: my dinner is cooling...

Becky Yamarik writes:

Russ, that's a good point about bribery vs. advertising. . . I do concede the point.

But I have to stick up for Sidelsky a bit since he's getting so bashed by the comments (but did loved the Ogden Nash poem). What he said really resonated with me.

We just spent a year in Switzerland for my husband's sabbatical and have just moved back to Southern California. The difference really speaks to what Sidelsky is talking about. In Switzerland, all stores are closed on sundays (the Swiss recently voted to uphold this), consumer goods are very expensive, and graphic displays of wealth are frowned upon.

Now back in SoCal it's tough to stomach all my flashy doctor colleagues driving their Lexus SUVs, living in 4,000 Sq foot houses, working late and never eating with their families, then complaining about how they don't make enough money to pay for their kids' college. . . it's kind of gross. . .
Seriously, people making >300K/yr and saying with a straight face they can't come up with 250K for college. When is enough enough??

Becky Yamarik writes:

oh, and my husband insists that if I lived 100 yrs ago I wd have been Lenin's right hand. . . but when you start calling your adversary either a communist or a nazi, doesn't that mean you're losing the argument! ;)

Methinks writes:

Becky,

Reading your last two comments, I find something else much more gross. I'm not a flashy person myself; it's just not my aesthetic, but I don't obsess about others' flash. I can't understand this per-occupation with how other peaceful people choose to live their lives. You may choose to define the Good Life for yourself as you wish, but what makes you so sure that your definition is so correct that you are willing to use force (as the Swiss do) to impose it on others? When is enough such self-aggrandizement enough?

Dmitry writes:

Russ, this one was one of the greatest!

Robert Skidelsky is one of the few guests who is comfortable arguing about complicated philosophical issues.

Most of the times when confronted with a philosophical question economists either
1) say something banal and completely trivial or 2)pretend to have an unusual point of view, which after some consideration seems to be full of contradictions and discrepancies.

Whereas Robert has a coherent philosophical world-view, you can literally hear from his calm voice and manner of speech how much thought he has spent contemplating about this problems.

So, thank you both again!

Joe writes:

While I agree that Skidelsky was short on specific policy changes that made sense, I find I am sympathetic to his argument.

I wish you had spent a little time identifying government policies that support growth and questioning whether it would be wise to remove nudges that are unfair and harmful. Think of subsidies and policies that push down the price of gas. The cyclist in Manhattan and the Los Angeles commuter with the four-ton SUV will pay the same toward these policies if their income is similar - that's not fair. If we are depleting a natural resource, then we will leave our children and grandchildren with less possibility than we were allowed - that's not fair.

Do the Fed's low interest rates promote consumption? Are they good policy for the long term? Are they fair?

I agree that growth has allowed many to enjoy the good life, but I question whether it is fair to assume there are no limits to growth and that the government should focus on promoting growth.

--Joey

George writes:

As usual, Adam Smith seems to have given us both the first and last word on the (mis)balance between striving for excessive material wealth and simply living the good life. Quote from ToMS IV.I.9-10 (emphaisis added):

We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and oeconomy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or oeconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it. And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.
stephen writes:

I kept thinking of this review by Eric Falkenstein whilst listening...

http://falkenblog.blogspot.com/2012/06/fantastic-keynesian-endgame.html

Becky Yamarik writes:

Methinks,

Although at first I didn't like what you wrote, upon reflection I can see that you are right. If you start worrying about what everyone else is doing, then you risk becoming the Pigs in Animal Farm, right?

Plus you taught me some new vocab. I had to look up self-aggrandizement. What a fabulous word!

Don writes:

I have been thinking about this topic lately. My wife works long hours and could afford to work less, but the reason she doesn't is she realizes she can afford to travel to exotic places with the extra money she makes. More money opens up all new possibilities that one never even considered before. That sounds like a rational choice, but I sometimes wonder if it is totally rational. I heard a story once that to capture monkeys they would drill a hole in a coconut and place something enticing in it. The monkey could fit his hand in the hole grab it but as long as he held on to it he could not make his hand small enough to withdraw it, and this is how they were caught. I wonder if the allure of an exotic vacation clouds my wife's better judgement and she can't let go of it no matter how big the sacrifice. On the other hand maybe the utility she gets is real and the sacrifice is worth it. Maybe the only real issue is should social policy play any part in that decision. I tend to think good intentioned government usually trys to make jewelry with a sledge hammer and doesn't do a good job of it.

Dale Eltoft writes:

Early in the conversation the question was raised of why people continue to work 40 or 50 hours per week.

"…when the economy is healthy people do work 30 to 40 to 50 hours a week. They don't take that wealth, that productivity, and convert it into leisure. They want stuff."
I’d like to offer my observation that in my experience many people identify with their work and they do it almost obsessively because it is who they are. Consequently even after the monetary goal is achieved they keep on going.

Pete writes:

Russ,

Thank you very much for your response. While I do believe that MOST people are indeed manipulated into buying products and that this is a contributing factor to our apparent insatiability, I think you may have said something that pushed me over the edge. "If you are worried about these effects, dedicate yourself to explaining to people how they are manipulated." This is something I have been seriously considering and your words have really made it seem like a legitimate endeavor. I am a bit trepidation because the cognitive dissonance it creates is, for lack of a better term, a tough sell.

Thanks,
Pete

Jim Bryan writes:

Enjoyed! I don't agreed with some of your guests ideas, but I found him to be thoughtful and very intellectually stimulating.

I personally enjoy working as long as it includes a sense of accomplishment.

I think the state does too much nudging already! People tend to support nudging, when it furthers THEIR point of view.

Shayne Cook writes:

I suspect Robert Skidelsky might benefit form a bit of Steve Jobs (Apple) wisdom:

When asked by an interviewer once, "What advice would you give to those who want to make a Million dollars?", Steve replied, "Most folks don't want to make a Million dollars! What most folks want is to spend a Million dollars." [emphasis, mine].

He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing), "You can easily identify those who actually want to make a Million dollars - they're Millionaires."

It is incredibly easy to make a Million dollars (and more) within the U.S. (and global) economy. All you have to do is invent/create something that makes other people's lives better, and those other people will shower you with Federal Reserve Coupons as reward for you having done so.

Of course, those who only want to spend a Million dollars are only interested in making their own lives better.

Cowboy Prof writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Art writes:

The Calvin Coolidge quote, "the chief business of America is business" is often taken out of context. It was from a speech given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925 and he concludes his speech with this statement:


It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.

Cowboy Prof writes:

This was a very difficult podcast interview to agree with. Thank you for showing some of the shallowness of Skidelski's arguments. William Foster (above) pretty much expressed my thoughts more clearly than I could.

However, there was one eye-popper that the good Mr. Foster missed: When Skidelski said we shouldn't pay attention to the costs of our actions, I kept thinking that this guy's paradise must either be Greece or Zimbabwe.

[This guy's paradise might also include spelling his name right. It's Skidelsky, with a "y".--Econlib Ed.]

MichaelM writes:

[Comment removed for civility policy violations and ad hominem remarks.--Econlib Ed.]

Mark Milton writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jason Elliott writes:

Just a thought. Would a positive correlation exist between increased leisure (idle) time and higher crime rates? Or am I just skeptical of human behavior?

Jim Feehely writes:

Hi Russ and all,

I came in late on this one. But it is refreshing to hear someone who argues from outside the propaganda bubble of free market capitalism. John Ralston Saul is another very clear thinker on these issues.

It amuses me that so many of your correspondents assume that consumerism is somehow the cornerstone of their individual freedom. It is that delusion that prevents many from understanding that society is not the economy and society is more important than any individual.

It is also true that attempts at what has been defined as Socialism have failed. It is just that the massive cheer squad for corporate capitalism cannot see that capitalism has also failed.

We need a new way. Principle-based social equity within which each has individual freedom. Dog-eat-dog markets restricted to what markets are good at, setting prices. A recognition that the hegemony of competition (even where cooperation and collaboration is demonstrably more effective) and the ridiculous obsession with growth is destroying our environment and oppressing the poor nations of the world. The answer is neither capitalism nor socialism.

But when these issues are raised, the ideologues unhelpfully man the rotting barricades for their particular ideology. We no longer need ideologies. All ideologies have been proven wrong to so degree. What we need is quality thought on social equity. But instead, our governments take advice from economists, not philosophers and that is the core of the problem,

Regards,
Jim Feehely.

Krishnan writes:

The Skidelskys will next write a book that would argue for a Moratorium on Innovation and Invention. After all, it was the industrial revolution that started the process whereby people started enjoying better working conditions, more food, cleaner water and cleaner air and better health. The Skidelskys would argue that "We have every innovation we need and there is no need to keep on innovating" - and would ask Governments to step in and tell people how they can be happy. (You see, THEY know what is good for all of us and THEY know that we have everything we need and the problem is simply one of distribution)

(No, that is not what he said - but I was astonished at the principles and their way of thinking - Russ Roberts pushed back - but not enough - )

Jim Feehely writes:

Hi again Russ,

On now having had a chance to read most of the comments on this interview, I am disappointed to note the pessimism that too much leisure will lead to social evil. What Mr Skidelsky is arguing is not necessarily more time for leisure. He is, in fact, arguing for individuals to be afforded more time for self-directed activity - a new kind of productivity. Karl Marx also argued for a similar authentic freedom from the burdensome obedience to employers.

Is our collective view of humanity so bleak that more individual freedom from corporate obedience is seen as a recipe for social degradation? What this reflects is the erroneous view that corporate capitalism is the architect of society, not the individual choices of its citizens. It does demonstrate, however, how insidious is the propaganda of corporate capitalism. And how inauthentic democracy has become under the aegis of corporate capitalism.

Regards,
Jim Feehely.

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