Between 1830 and 1930 the average U.S. full-time workweek declined from 69 hours to 47 hours per week. Far from decreasing economic production, this trend was accompanied by substantial increases in standards of living. We were working less and enjoying more. Capitalism was working.
It was at this time that the famous economist John Maynard Keynes published his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he imagined Western societies a hundred years later continuing along this trajectory and escaping the “economic problem” once and for all. He envisioned four to eight fold increases in standards of living accompanied by 15 hour workweeks. More importantly, he envisioned freedom from capitalistic principles that make a virtue of greed. We would cast off the pretensions of capitalism that we only adopted to get us over the subsistence hump, and finally reach a world where we might fully realize our human potential.
Today we are all probably saddened to see this future unrealized. But what is surprising is how much more attainable this future is than we may have appreciated.
Just considering changes in average productivity over time, we can start to understand how far we have come. The average U.S. worker today is about four times as productive as the average worker of the 1950s, who worked about 40 hours a week. A natural interpretation says we could work one fourth as much today and achieve the same standard of living as our forefathers in the ’50s. We would probably miss our phones, washing machines, and Amazon Prime shipping, but by working 11 hours a week we could turn the workweek into a work-weekend, leaving us plenty of time to hang out with our friends, wash our clothes, and walk to stores to buy what we need.
If the 50s lifestyle doesn’t suit us, we could enjoy the 70s lifestyle of Space Invaders and microwave ovens while working around 18 hours a week, or the 90s lifestyle of Disney and early iMacs while working 25 hours a week, and so on. We can squabble over the details and practicalities of these hypotheticals. Yet they acknowledge the huge leaps humanity has made in a way that current discussions of the economy do not. They acknowledge the fact that today a computer or a robot or a more highly educated worker can complete a task in fractions of the time that would have been required in past eras — and they remind us of the many forms society could take as a result.
Even these hypotheticals may understate the incredible capabilities of our economic system. Half of all modern work activities today could be replaced with current technology, if only those technologies were more widely implemented. Imminent technological developments will drive this proportion even higher. Our transportation industry may soon be disrupted substantially by self-driving cars. We are rapidly discovering new and better ways to harness the world’s energy. Improvements in health and education will continue to improve the skill of our workers. Service industries, including Wall Street, will continue to be reshaped by developments in AI. And these developments will only be accelerated by quantum computing, which, it is worth mentioning, Google harnessed just a few months ago to execute in three minutes a computation that would have taken a classical supercomputer 10,000 years. In almost every sector imaginable the fearless march of science and technology will create an economic system converging towards self-sustainability.
To view these developments the way Keynes did is to appreciate capitalism not for what it does but rather for what it has already done. It is to see the rapid developments brought about by capitalism not so much as evidence for capitalism’s continued necessity, but rather as the building blocks for a world system that no longer needs capitalism. We can think of ourselves climbing higher and higher up the proverbial capitalist ladder. Or we can think of ourselves summiting something. We can dream of retiring capitalism and replacing it with a system that enjoys and acknowledges the benefits brought by capitalism while leaving behind its contradictions and inhumanities. Capitalism is a system of economic progress, but at a certain point, whether today or somewhere down the line, the burden of progress, of the strictly economic sort, will be best left behind.
Of course, although these dreams of a future beyond capitalism are possible or nearly possible in the simple sense of resource input and output, they are miles away in today’s complicated reality. Reality carries with it broken political systems, established economic policies and the challenges of globalization, cultural obsessions with capitalistic ideals like greed and the persisting myth of functioning meritocracy, and even conceptual considerations of whether standards of living must include growth in and of itself. We should not let wistful abstraction deter us from continuing to politically and culturally navigate these daily realities.
Yet we are not being idealists in realizing that we are capable of an entirely different world, the world that the leading architect of our current economic system imagined for us almost 100 years ago, likely from some desk in London overlooking a cobblestone street. To dream of this world is to remind ourselves of the uniqueness of the 21st century, and to have an open mind about the path we are charting forward.
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.