Jon Krause

Labor’s Paradise Lost

John Maynard Keynes thought that most people by now would have to work only 15 hours a week to produce all that they needed for subsistence and comfort. What Keynes did not foresee was that the lion’s share of the productivity gains achieved since the 1980's, when working hours stopped falling, would be seized by the well-off.

LONDON – As people in the developed world wonder how their countries will return to full employment after the Great Recession, it might benefit us to take a look at a visionary essay that John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930, called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”

Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, equipped governments with the intellectual tools to counter the unemployment caused by slumps. In this earlier essay, however, Keynes distinguished between unemployment caused by temporary economic breakdowns and what he called “technological unemployment” – that is, “unemployment due to the discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”

Keynes reckoned that we would hear much more about this kind of unemployment in the future. But its emergence, he thought, was a cause for hope, rather than despair. For it showed that the developed world, at least, was on track to solving the “economic problem” – the problem of scarcity that kept mankind tethered to a burdensome life of toil.

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