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How much is enough?
August 2, 2012 1:02 AM   Subscribe

Robert and Edward Skidelsky talk about their book "How much is enough." Mixing economics and philosophy will obviously cause a lot of debate, but they do raise some valid points.
posted by 00dimitri00 (25 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

posted by clarknova at 1:46 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently went to a talk by Lord Skidelsky on this Book at the LSE in London and thought it rather good. - Even at the talk there was such a great resistance from the audience against the very notion of reduced work. And generally from this Ideological viewpoint that is non-obvious to a lot of people.

There is quite a tradition of these thoughts from
Useful Work versus Useless Toil By William Morris to
Jeremy Rifkin - The End of Work
posted by mary8nne at 2:16 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

More "more."
posted by 0rison at 2:34 AM on August 2, 2012

Stephanie Flanders (BBC economics correspondent) interviewed a few economists, including Skidelsky in her most recent "Stephanomics" programme. The video is available on iPlayer or there's a podcast available from iTunes, or directly from the BBC website.
posted by pharm at 3:03 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The classic essay in this area is by Russell.
posted by jet_manifesto at 4:07 AM on August 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Kropotkin was talking about this well over 100 years ago.
posted by cthuljew at 4:31 AM on August 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Economist juxtaposes the Skidelskys' book with Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets: Insatiable Longing.
posted by 0rison at 4:55 AM on August 2, 2012

" and an end to the tax-deductibility of company spending on advertising." (from the Economist review) - now that actually seems like a good idea.

Although i suppose problematic in terms of how to define Advertising.
posted by mary8nne at 5:02 AM on August 2, 2012

In 1962 "Cybernation: the silent conquest" heralded the coming abundance of liesure time provided by computer automation.
posted by GPF at 5:05 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, "heralded" isn't the right word. They worried about civil disruption with so many idle hands about.

LOLCATS are the opiate of the masses.
posted by GPF at 5:09 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think a lot of people have talked about this before (which is of course no reason not to talk about it now as well). The Buddha, for instance. A lot of Marx's thoughts, regarding the underlying need for capital to increase the velocity of circulation through the colonization of daily life, are also still relevant.
posted by carter at 5:09 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Although i suppose problematic in terms of how to define Advertising.

All voluntary information emitted by a for-profit corporation is advertising (or propaganda, which is about the same thing).
posted by DU at 5:19 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that if efficiency increases and hours worked stay level, either everyone must consume more or work less, or else you end up with massive unemployment. This talk, and many of the discussions I have seen, seem to take the stance that consumption is the driving force, but I think that may be backwards. Because there is another effect of massive overproduction: wealth. If everyone produces twice as much, that is twice as much wealth on the planet, and while I might be just as happy working 20 hours and having a slightly smaller TV, the corporate world could never stand for that. And so we get the "constant advertising pressure" to keep consumption up.
posted by Nothing at 5:30 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

"...that consumption is the driving force, but I think that may be backwards. "

I think you have too narrow a point of view of cause and effect in this. Skidelsky is specifically saying that market forces / advertising / social pressures / the IDEOLOGY of modernity is itself driving the desire for growth in consumption.

And that the only way to turn this around is to actually change the all these normative forces in society itself.

There is a history in propaganda in creating the "Work Ethic" the protestant notion of the "Goodness of work" and this is also part of the problem.
posted by mary8nne at 5:39 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that if efficiency increases and hours worked stay level, either everyone must consume more or work less, or else you end up with massive unemployment.

I think the current economy demonstrates that increased consumption and massive unemployment aren't really either/or propositions.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:44 AM on August 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

If a boat is filling with water, you might say that if you don't bail you will definitely sink. That doesn't mean that bailing will definitely save you.

I realize that the conversation was more complex than simply saying that consumption was the cause, but my point is that these social pressures which drive consumption can largely be traced back to those who benefit from it. Wages do not keep up with productivity, and that spread is one hell of an incentive.
posted by Nothing at 5:52 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

As an economist, I've got three words for you: algorithmic game theory. There have also been strides in algorithmic agent-based models generating nonlinear macrodynamics, but I'm less acquainted with those.

The profession has for too long been lost looking at psychology and (the wrong kinds of) philosophy. (A short volume of philosophy that may make it clear why algorithmics are so important here is Delanda's Philosophy and simulation). Before we can make any behavioral assumption, we first need to know if it's computationally feasible. Experimental psychology has paid off well, but these people don't cut at the veins of what the problems of "instrumental rationality".

That said, cutting to the subject.
  1. Economics usually assumes non-satiety because it seems reasonable and because assuming convexity allows us to throw away a lot of squicky hypotheses and still prove very reasonable theorems. Satiety poses technical issues for "instrumental rationality", and when we introuce behavioral kinks (like Barry Schwartz's "paradox of choice", whence more choices = more anxiety = unhappiness) it becomes next to intractable as an analytical problem. BUT it may be amenable to an algorithmic approximation solution.
  2. A second problem is uncertainty or underestimation re:prices and constraints. This can be seen in always-full-to-the-brink credit card statements, but goes deeper than that -- I see a donut, I see its sticker price and it seems reasonable, but I'm not factoring in the increase in the probability of developing metabolic diseases. Constraints are also subject to uncertainty: suppose I want to drink the maximum lifetime amount of alcohol that doesn't give me cirrhosis. Even if I take monthly blood panels for lifestyle adjustments, this is still very, very messy.
  3. Finally, the bloody coordination/tragedy of the commons problem. After a while you get sick and tired of being sick and tired of this issue, even in its most interesting (algorithmic cost-sharing) form, but it's there. Global overconsumption of certain resources causes global problems, while individual "overconsumption" (such that global overconsumption emerges) is often cost-free. At the global consumerism scale, this is for all purposes unfixable, and if I may be contrarian for five seconds, not as big of a problem really. You have to decouple morality from analysis if you are to prevent certain specific adverse events -- and no, you can't choose all, it's either global warming or survival of the elephants. Why? Because people vote with their rupees, and there's only so much nudging you can do.
I should emphasize I'm neither a libertarian nor a caricatural "bleeding-heart liberal". I'm an economist. I analyze policy.
posted by syntaxfree at 7:00 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


but what if it's not being emitted by them but by people who just happen to use their services

surely that's legit and not at all questionable
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:12 AM on August 2, 2012

Exceedingly interesting. It is very cheering to see that others are asking these important and timely questions...
posted by lucien_reeve at 7:15 AM on August 2, 2012

I'm not sure "How much is enough?" is a good question to ask, though "What constitutes the good life?" certainly is.

The Olympics provides useful context. We don't ask athletes "How much is enough?" or "How many medals are enough?" or "How fast is fast enough?"

Their motivation is not to "have enough". Partly the motivation is that it's hard for us to be completely fulfilled without having things to strive for. Partly that whatever we have or whatever we've accomplished, we're inclined to compare ourselves to others, and given that like athletes the circles we move in are dictated by what we've already accomplished, there are always plenty of people around us who've accomplished more.

Also, as with Olympians, if we're going to strive for something, or try to be the best we can be at something, there are going to be trade-offs and sacrifices to be made. And that's regardless of what that something is, whether it's absurdly materialistic or heroically altruistic.

Nelson Mandela has a line in his autobiography where he talks about how he got to be the father of a nation, but at the cost of missing out on being the father of his own children.

The questions that I've asked myself are more along the lines of: "What do I want to do with this life of mine?" and "Who do I want to be?"

In retrospect, even those questions may have backfired, as they had me move away from mostly-enjoyable and probably-achievable paths to more-inspiring but probably-unreachable ones.
posted by philipy at 8:34 AM on August 2, 2012

The introduction (read via the google books link in the FPP) is quite interesting. I think I might quibble with some specifics, but they bring up some very important points, including but not limited to:

* That economics and growth should be for some human considerations. I can only speak to North America, but to me it is really notable and bizarre that politicians talk all the time about what is good for the economy, rather than what is good for people. As the Skidelskys note, there comes a point where increases in GDP do not correspond to increases in quality of life, so taking care of "the economy" no longer corresponds to taking care of actual people (which is ostensibly the job of politicians, at least in a nominal democracy).

** That, in rewarding more anti-social behavior, capitalism has in fact changed our culture to make such behavior more socially acceptable, and this has negative effects on social cohesion and people's lives. I don't agree that an "innate tendency to competitive, status-driven consumption" is a primary factor driving the increase in amounts that people who have jobs are working. But it seems to me that acting in one's immediate self-interest despite negative side effects to society as a whole has become more morally and culturally acceptable over my lifetime, and it seems to me that the logic behind this shift has gone something like: what's good for the economy is good for people; short-term financial self-interest with no concern for externalities is good for the economy; therefore it must be good for people, and thus morally ok. I like that the Skidelskys tie this ability of the economic system to influence culture into the question of ends justifying means versus means shaping the ends, as when they note that
"Keynes... was not alone in thinking that motives bad in themselves might nonetheless be useful.... In the language of myth, Western civilization has made its peace with the Devil, in return for which it has been granted hitherto unimaginable resources of knowledge, power and pleasure. This is, of course, the grand theme of the Faust legend, immortalized by Goethe. The irony is, however, that now that we have at last achieved abundance, the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly. The Devil, it seems, has claimed his reward.

(By the way, jet_manifesto, I was happy to see that they quote that very essay by Russell in their introduction.)
posted by eviemath at 8:39 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

it's hard for us to be completely fulfilled without having things to strive for

OK, so let's strive for that.
posted by flabdablet at 9:56 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is ultimately self-contradicting reductio ad absurdio flabdablet.

All misery begins in desire. -> WTF is desiring to not desire?
posted by bukvich at 7:20 PM on August 2, 2012

It is ultimately self-contradicting reductio ad absurdio flabdablet.

One could make exactly the same observation about being alive at all. What's the point of going to all the trouble of being born if you're ultimately going to die? The whole thing is absurd on its face. But I can live with that. Absurdity makes me laugh, and I like to laugh.

All misery begins in desire. -> WTF is desiring to not desire?

A virtuous circle. The better you become at not desiring, the less desire (including desire-to-desire) you need, and therefore the less miserable you are.
posted by flabdablet at 10:22 PM on August 2, 2012

Sorry, that should have read "the less desire (including desire-not-to-desire) you need".
posted by flabdablet at 10:32 PM on August 2, 2012

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