Monday, June 6, 2016

For Some People, Keynes was Right

Tyler Cowen:
John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, prophesied that by 2030 people in wealthy nations would work no more than 15 hours a week. It isn’t turning out that way.

The average workweek for full-time American workers isn’t anywhere close to Keynes’s predictions. Current estimates are 34 to 47 hours, depending on what exactly is being measured and how part-time labor is treated.
So Americans between 19 and 65 are working a lot more than Keynes thought. And one group in particular is working a lot more: mothers.

But maybe he wasn't completely wrong:
If Keynes had been talking just about older people, he would have been closer to the mark, because older people do work much less than they did decades ago. Certainly, they work much less than younger people. According to one estimate, men over the age of 65 spend almost 43 percent more time on recreation than do men of prime working age. Over all, older men spend far more time than younger ones on reading, watching television and taking cruises, among other fun activities. Fewer than 20 percent of men over 65 are in the work force today. We tend to take this for granted, but it’s a radical contrast with 1880, when that figure was about 75 percent. . . .

Teenagers are also ahead of Keynes’s workplace predictions. Several decades ago, about 55 percent of teenagers had jobs, but lately only about 35 percent do.
This is interesting. Keynes was right that our leisure would increase, but it is increasing at the beginning and end of our lives, not in the middle.

Is that the best way to distribute the work? If you were designing a society from scratch, would you set it up so that mothers with young children would work full time so that everybody could retire at 65 and teenagers could spend their weekends playing video games?

Seems rather puzzling to me.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Of course people wouldn't set things up that way from scratch, but then again, our current situation wasn't really planned for, so I'm not sure why you even ask?

Keynes was fallible, like every economist before him, and like every economist to follow. It is vital to remember that the man barely outlived World War II, dying in 1946 - a vastly different time, and a vantage point from which no one could hope to accurately predict the century to come. His economic theories certainly didn't account for the effects of the development of computing, nor the geopolitical realities of the Cold War, nor any of the other world-altering developments that would eventually come about.

What Keynes did get right is the importance of intervention to avoid the boom/bust cycle of unregulated markets. His predictions for the year 2030 were never going to be accurate - no one ever predicts the future accurately - but he did at least identify certain noteable trends of human behavior which we can bear in mind when making policy, and which seem to hold in most situations in the modern world.

If we're to care at all about his 2030 predictions, it must necessarily be in light of the vantage point from which he made them. Why did he think leisure time would increase so much? What assumptions was he working from? How did reality end up differing from those assumptions? And if it hadn't differed, would he have ended up being correct in the end?