Today we suffer disillusion, not because we are poorer than we were — on the contrary, even today we enjoy, in Great Britain at least, a higher standard of life than at any previous period — but because other values seem to have been sacrificed and because they seem to have been sacrificed unnecessarily, inasmuch as our economic system is not, in fact, enabling us to exploit to the utmost the possibilities for economic wealth afforded by the progress of our technique, leading us to feel that we might as well have used up the margin in more satisfying ways.
If you finished that paragraph and thought ‘Gosh, Sutherland has really nailed the contemporary malaise’, you are probably right. Except for two things. I didn’t write it and it isn’t remotely contemporary. John Maynard Keynes wrote it in June 1933.
Having spent the past 30 years at the coalface of consumer capitalism, it is the persistence of our discontent which fascinates me. Even though our material quality of life continues to improve by almost all objective measures, we still feel the system is failing us.
It’s worth remembering that, at the time of Keynes’s writing, there were only two and a half million cars in Britain; a bottle of whisky cost a week’s wages for a working man; foreign travel or washing machines were unimaginable luxuries. In 1950, in real terms, a ten-minute phone call to New York cost more than a one-way transatlantic flight today.
But here’s the rub. We don’t really notice these gains. No one ends a ten-minute transatlantic call feeling £199 richer because it now costs £1 not £200. Contrary to what economists think, the consumer surplus — the difference between what you’d be prepared to pay for something minus what you have to pay — does not produce much happiness or gratitude.
There is clearly something wrong with the way we are measuring things, not least in that we are approaching wealth and technological progress solely as ends in themselves rather than as a possible means to something better. This is a failure of the imagination which IT experts call ‘paving the cow paths’; it’s what happens when you merely add a layer of technology to a system without attempting a fundamental rethink of the system overall. (The phrase originates from the history of Boston, where city fathers never gave any thought to the layout of the streets, simply paving the random cattle tracks which already existed.)
So it was refreshing to see a bill introduced in the House of Commons (by the exceptional Helen Whately, MP) which would make all new jobs flexible by default. Under the new law, unless an employer could advance a specific reason why an advertised job could not be performed with flexible hours, it would be assumed that this was an option. Currently 87 per cent of people would like to work flexibly, yet only 9.8 per cent of jobs paying over £20,000 a year offer the chance.
This legislation is exactly the kind of wider experiment which is necessary if we are to use technological and wealth gains to their full extent. After all, the shift to double-income households was a classic case of paved cow paths. It started as an option for both parties to work before they had children, but soon created an economic ratchet whereby running a household required both adults to work full-time throughout their lives. At no point has there been an opportunity to say: ‘Hold on, every family has now lost 40 discretionary hours of time every week. Might we have a chance to get some of that back?’ Technology now gives us a chance to revisit this outcome. I suspect Keynes would support this bill.